Ax brings depth and poetry to Schoenberg, familiar Beethoven at FIU

By Lawrence Budmen

Emanuel Ax performed a recital Wednesday night at FIU for Friends of Chamber Music. Photo: Nigel Parry

For over five decades, Emanuel Ax has been a poet and patrician of the keyboard. In a rare Miami recital, Ax offered an evening of Beethoven and Schoenberg, presented by Friends of Chamber Music Tuesday night at Florida International University’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center.

Ax’s technique remains intact and his vast dynamic range and agility always served the music’s expressive depth rather than mere pyrotechnical display. Ax played three Beethoven sonatas (from the composer’s early, middle and more mature periods) interspersed with short pieces by Arnold Schoenberg. 

The Schoenberg works spanned his creative trajectory from late romanticism to atonal innovator. Three Pieces (from 1894) find Schoenberg in full Brahmsian mode, with his compositional feet firmly planted in the nineteenth century. Ax projected the full color palette and scale of the Andantino and brought appropriate fireworks to the final Presto.

In the Op. 11 Three Pieces, Schoenberg has found his modernist voice. Moody, dark and restless, these works challenge a pianist’s technique and musical sensibilities. The second of the vignettes – marked “very slowly” – proved most effective. Ax brought clarity and momentum in this romantic rhapsody, viewed through an atonal lens. He managed the wild leaps across the keyboard in the third piece with consummate skill. 

Six Little Pieces, Op. 19, are a series of terse cameos and witticisms, lasting only a minute or two. Ax proved as fine an exponent of these Schoenberg creations as one could imagine.

Ax has long been an authoritative Beethoven interpreter, and his mastery of this repertoire has only increased over the years. 

From the opening bars of the Sonata No. 8 in C minor (“Pathetique”), every note was perfectly placed with pulse and rhythm given strength. Ax put a personal stamp on the Adagio cantabile, the lines flowing and unhurried, tinged with vivid coloration. Classicism and passion were prominent in equal measure for the Rondo finale. Ax probed the more lyrical strands of Beethoven’s discourse and elevated the inner voicings with clarity.

The Sonata in A Major, Op. 2, no. 2 seems outwardly Mozartean but has an undercurrent of a new voice aborning in this early Beethoven score. Ax’s sparkle and sculpted phrasing did full justice to the humor and formal patterns of the initial Allegro vivace. His subtle pedaling enhanced the expression in the Largo appassionato. The principal motif of the concluding Grazioso was broadly shaped but Ax exhibited fleet power in the stormy central episode with its suggestion of the Beethoven to come.

The sense of mystery in the opening pages of the Sonata No. 23 in F minor (“Appassionata”) was sculpted with attention to detail. A steady pulse and cleanly delineated bass line emblazoned the Andante con moto and variants of the main melody were given distinctive inflection. Here, Ax’s ability to make the most familiar music sound new and fresh was on full display. He projected the essence of Beethoven’s majestic writing in the third movement, building crescendos in gradual layers bereft of bombast.

A large and enthusiastic audience repeatedly recalled Ax to the stage. He offered an encore of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Serenade,” played with the spaciousness and breadth of a slow movement of a major sonata, providing an apt conclusion to a memorable concert.

Emanuel Ax performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 with Gerard Schwarz leading the Palm Beach Symphony 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. 

Emanuel Ax plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas  7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Friends of Chamber Music present pianist Benjamin Grosvenor playing works by Chopin and Liszt   8 p.m. May 21 at the FIU Wertheim Performing Arts Center.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Wed Mar 6, 2024
at 12:12 pm
No Comments