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Emanuel Ax plays Beethoven and Schumann,
and impresses BILL NEWMAN


Visually, when he takes a bow, he reminds me of a jovial Billy Bunter expressing a degree of self pleasure at obviously pleasing his audience. But Emanuel Ax is a giant of a piano player with an integrity and musicianship second to none. There are very occasional periods when he literally becomes so carried away with the music he is performing -- I instance a passage from the opening movement of the Schumann Fantasy when he suddenly attacked the keyboard in exuberant delight with a particular phrase, and raised a few eyebrows, but this is all part of his creative enjoyment to have the honour of performing the piece at all -- a kind of renewed acquaintance with music he loves.

The performance itself [Sunday 11 May 2008 at London's Wigmore Hall] was thrilling, especially in the central movement that rose gradually to a feeling of exultation at the closing octaves and final chords. The slight first movement relapse quickly forgotten, what sheer beauty and clarity in the lyrical writing and bravura passagework with a spell-binding coda that brought tears to the eyes. I found the magical Finale a trifle fast and slightly too forceful, but this is his particularly way of highlighting Schumann's powers of persuasion to his loved one. The alternate ending that mirrors the close of the first movement, I am less sure about and would like to dwell longer on. One becomes so used to the more usual ending. Papillons was poignantly child like, dexterously pinpointing the twists of harmonic changes of key and structure -- a perfect joy throughout.

The two Beethoven Sonatas were quite monumental. In the early A major Op 2 No 2, with its bold flourishes and sudden quips, when a pianist maintains a steady tempo in each movement without exaggerating the phrasing or dynamics needlessly, you know that Beethoven realized how his sonata should sound. The Appassionata Sonata similarly stood out as one of the great performances, although I have heard Ax play it quite differently and just as superbly. There was no rushing back and forth, proportionately every phrase structure and expressive marking was in place, and the piece sounded with the mystery and excitement as of old. Both the second and third movements were so finely controlled that the work's coda rang forth with the force of a battering ram. Great music making.

Copyright © 25 August 2008 Bill Newman, Edgware UK


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