Ax brings Classical spirit and quirky touch to Beethoven

By Lawrence Budmen

Emanuel Ax. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Emanuel Ax performed music of Beethoven Tuesday night at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater. Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

In 1974 a young Juilliard School student strode out on the stage of what was then the Miami Beach Auditorium (now the Jackie Gleason Theater) to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Miami Beach Symphony. The semi-professional orchestra (long defunct) was scrappy at best, yet the pianist made a strong impression. Later that year the same artist–Emanuel Ax–would win the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition in Israel and launch his major international career.

More than four decades later, Ax continues to play a full schedule of recitals, chamber music and orchestral appearances. On Tuesday night Ax gave an all Beethoven recital to conclude the short three-event season of the Broward Center Classical Series.

While Ax’s Beethoven can be on the cool side, he brings a fine sense of proportion to the scores. Choices of tempo within each movement and in relation to the other sections are carefully chosen. 

Two repertoire staples bookended the program. In the Sonata No. 8 (“Pathetique”), Ax brought plenty of rhythmic energy to the first movement. His dynamic palette was classically scaled. Ax’s sense of even, flowing melodic lines was strongly evident in the Adagio cantabile. In the final Rondo, he brought out the music’s Mozartean roots.

The concluding Sonata No. 23 (“Appassionata”) began somewhat slowly. The understatement of the opening bars of the Allegro assai was belied by the big-boned rendition of the rest of the movement.  With a steady pulse and judicious rubato, Ax played the Andante in a straightforward manner. Unlike many pianists, Ax did not unleash the keyboard’s full power at the onset of the final Allegro and the performance was all the better for that. Allowing the music to gradually gather expressive force, Ax offered as fine and satisfying an “Appassionata” as one is likely to hear.

Between these two famous works, Ax offered less familiar Beethoven. The theme and variations was one of the composer’s favorite piano inspirations and his Variations on a Theme in F Major is one of his best works in that genre. Ax found just the right pace and mood for each of the variations on an original melody.

In the Sonata No. 16, Beethoven’s more impish side is on display. Ax brought out the quirky humor of the Allegro vivace opening. In brief comments prior to the performance, Ax called the Adagio grazioso “the longest Bellini aria”  and indeed Beethoven’s expansive melody contains more than a whiff of bel canto. With Ax’s perfectly timed hesitations and precise articulation of the arpeggios, the movement flowed in a graceful manner. The Rondo finale seems to build to a crescendo, only to end with an impossibly fast coda. Ax captured the wit of Beethoven’s unlikely musical twists.

The Polonaise in C Major was a diverting curio. Long before Chopin penned his famous scores, Beethoven adapted the rhythms of this Polish dance. Ax brought Chopinesque inflections to this charming miniature.

Due to low ticket sales, the concert was moved from the Broward Center’s vast Au Rene Theater to the smaller Amaturo Theater where it drew a nearly full house. The hall’s excellent acoustics were a fine platform for Ax’s intelligent programming and strong performances and it was a boon to hear an artist of his stature in such an intimate setting. The Broward Center programmers should consider utilizing the Amaturo as their main classical venue.


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Wed Mar 23, 2016
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