In his recital at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo on Sunday, pianist Emanuel Ax shared the spotlight with two exceptional instruments. Ax played a bright-sounding Hamburg Steinway in the first half and a more darkly textured New York Steinway in the second.
This was the first piano recital at the 1,032-seat hall, which opened in September. The detail and depth of sonic warmth produced by Ax in a program of variations by Copland, Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann was embraced by the venue, which compares favorably to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Yasuhisa Toyota was the acoustician for both spaces.
There was an especially effective crystalline clarity to Ax’s sound in Copland’s compact and dramatic Piano Variations. Copland called his austere 1930 masterpiece a “ten-minute monster,” and it shows the composer in an atypically rigorous modernist mode. In Ax’s hands, the score’s bracing dissonance and loud chords became beautiful.
In Haydn’s touching Andante and Variations in F minor, the pianist made a case for the composer as the first great Romantic. In a rendition full of feeling, he meticulously etched the alternating variations on two themes, leading to a whispering coda.
Ax tested the resounding lower register of the Hamburg instrument in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and Fugue, Opus 35. He captured the grotesquery in the opening bass chords, a self-parody of the composer’s own theme from his “Eroica” Symphony finale. Ax’s account was exhilaratingly earthy and visceral.
Even better was Ax’s uninhibited rendition of Schumann’s inspired “Symphonic Etudes.” If any single work could test the grand orchestral and intimate properties of a New York Steinway and a new concert hall, it's this one. Ax conveyed Schumann’s full range of moods, from dreamy and reflective to impetuous and passionate. His encore was an atmospheric rendering of “Pagodes” from Debussy’s “Estampes.”
-- Rick Schultz
Photo: Emanuel Ax performs Sunday at the Soka Performing Arts Center. Credit: Eric Mitsuo Kimura