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Music review: Emanuel Ax concludes concert series at Disney Hall

April 21, 2010 |  1:50 pm

Emanuelax Among pianists of his generation, Emanuel Ax may be the most consistently likable. He has earned a loyal following, and his Walt Disney Concert Hall recital Tuesday predictably drew a good-sized crowd. It was the Los Angeles finale of Ax’s concert series celebrating the 200th birthdays of Chopin and Schumann. Previous programs included a recital with soprano Dawn Upshaw and another with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Both highlighted lesser-known works by each composer.

This time, however, Ax offered several landmarks in 19th century piano literature, along with a 21st century bonus. He contrasted a set of Chopin’s Mazurkas in the recital’s first half with the West Coast premiere of British composer Thomas Adès’ captivating “Three Mazurkas” in the second. Ax gave the premiere of the Adès work, written last fall in Los Angeles, at Carnegie Hall in February.

Beginning with the Polonaise-Fantaisie, a brilliantly structured if seemingly improvisatory late-Chopin masterpiece, Ax brought sensitivity, insight and plush sound to the score’s evolving melody and striking dramatic passages. Surprisingly, he was less convincing in three of Chopin’s rhythmically subtle Mazurkas, which felt curiously aloof on this occasion.

Next was Schumann’s large-scale Fantasy in C, in which Ax caught the surging passion of the opening movement, but then had some technical trouble in the notoriously difficult central March. Years ago, Evgeny Kissin performed this section boldly and cleanly to a sudden burst of applause at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but Ax has never been that kind of show-stopping pianist. He was on firmer ground in the sustained poetry of the slow-movement finale.

After intermission, he returned with more fantastic Schumann: the “Fantasiestucke,” a suite of eight fantasy pieces. Here Ax compellingly conveyed the work’s dreaminess, turbulence and whimsy.

Performing from the score in Adès’ “Three Mazurkas,” Ax brought a searching authority to the composer’s fractured modern re-imagining of Chopin’s Mazurkas. The darker-hued first and third contrasted well with the sparkling second, which ends abruptly.

Ax finished with Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise.” He returned for just one encore: Chopin’s despairing Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 1, exquisitely rendered.

-- Rick Schultz

Photo: Emanuel Ax. Credit: Sony Music Entertainment