Saturday 23 February 2013

Performances of great authority from Emanuel Ax, on a new release from Sony Classical, of Variations by Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann

From time to time one is reminded of an artist who is sometimes taken for granted such is his musical achievement over the years. New artists appear showing great promise but, when a long established performer makes a new recording of great authority and musicianship, one is jolted into recognising again the stature of such an artist.

Such is the case with a new recording for Sony Classical  by Emanuel Ax Here Ax has recorded Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for piano in E flat major Op.35, Haydn’s Variations in F minor Hob.XVII:6 (Andante con variazioni) and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op.13. Emanuel Ax has said that ‘we’re so centered on the sonata style. What’s nice sometimes is to look at other ways to deal with structure, other ways to deal with expression’ and indeed he does so, brilliantly.

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Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for Piano in E flat major Op.35, written in 1802, are usually known as the ‘Eroica’ Variations due to their foreshadowing the finale of the Eroica Symphony. In fact they actually use material from earlier works, the finale of the Twelve Contradances and the finale of his Prometheus ballet music. Beethoven actually asked his publisher to put a reference to Prometheus on the title page of the score but he failed to do so. In view of this, the variations could reasonably be called the Prometheus Variations. Consisting of an Introduction, Fifteen Variations and Fugue (Finale) this magnificent work is a culmination of Beethoven’s early sets of variations.

From the opening chord, Emanuel Ax shows that he is his own man, giving a gently thoughtful yet spontaneous presentation of the theme, before the full allegretto vivace, Eroica (or rather Prometheus) theme. There are so many lovely features in this performance, such as the lovely rolling first variation played with a nonchalant air, yet with such fine pianism, superb fluency in variation two, lovely touches in the fleeting fourth variation, an improvisatory fifth that could easily be Beethoven trying out his ideas. There is imagination and mastery throughout variation seven; a lovely expansive eighth variation has all the poetry and feeling that you could want.

The tenth variation has the fantasy and wonder beautifully captured, variation eleven is full of stately poise and crystalline purity, variation twelve always has control yet keeps spontaneity and there is terrific playing in the thirteenth variation, with all its dissonances. Spontaneity is present in the fourteenth variation which allows a feeling of nostalgia in this slow variation. Ax runs variation fourteen perfectly into the next and final variation that is so full of poetry and poise. He draws so much from the music that one forgets that this is another variation as it takes on such a personal form of its own.

It is easy to forget that Beethoven could bring so much to the fugal form. One has only to listen to the wonderful final fugue of his Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat major, Op.110 to hear what he could do or indeed the final great fugue of these variations.  Ax leads so naturally into the fugue, seemingly pulling all the variations together in playing of supreme mastery in this fugue based on the base line of the theme. Throughout one can glimpse the ‘Eroica’ theme in this breathtakingly played conclusion to this great work.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor Hob.XVII:6 (Andante con variazioni), written in 1793 is a perfect work to follow Beethoven’s magnificent Variations and Fugue. Haydn’s little variations in F minor are thought to have been intended to be the first movement of a larger work. Ax shows his affinity in the quiet thoughtful moments as this lovely work slowly develops. In Ax’s hands these variations are nothing less than a gem. There is such fluidity, with the later descending passage wonderfully done. Ax brings such a sense of fantasy to this work.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op.13 were written in 1834 and based on a theme written by a certain Baron von Fricken. Dedicated to the English composer William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875), performances of these Etudes can cause confusion for listeners given that they appear in many different versions. Before publication in 1837, five of the pieces were removed by Schumann and six new ones substituted, whilst the rest were modified. In 1852 a further revision removed two further pieces that were not considered to relate very strongly to the theme. Just to add to the confusion, in 1862, Brahms reinstated these two pieces and added the five original pieces for the 1873 critical edition. On this recording Emanuel Ax gives us the Theme, followed by Etudes 1 ,2, 3, 4 and 5, Variations 4 and 5, Etudes 6, 7 and 8, Variation 2 and Etudes 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Ax presents the theme with wonderful spontaneity. The first Etude is full of imagination and there is a full, expansive second etude with so much colour and fine rubato in this emotionally mixed piece. This is great playing by any standards. Ax just slips straight into the lovely little third etude, with fleet fingered, delicate, sensitive playing. There is such a well managed change of mood from the fourth Etude, with a strident march rhythm, to the rhythm of the fifth Etude.

Variation four brings gentle, almost Chopinesque lilting phrases played to perfection by Ax with such a feeling of spontaneity. Variation five has some exquisite sounds conjured up by Ax in this limpid, again Chopinesque etude. There is some fabulous playing in Etude six, with its rapid mood swings, leading to the seventh Etude with the upward phrases showing Ax’s wonderful keyboard technique. After a superb eighth Etude, in Variation two Ax brings out so many lovely sonorities showing that there is so much more to the piece in the hands of such a fine musician, with such wonder and poetry.

Etude nine passes by so quickly and subtly before fading away to the Tenth Etude full of wonderful playing in this allegro con energia. The eleventh Etude is exquisitely shaped and coloured, building to a slight climax and gently relaxing again - wonderfully done. The final Etude, number twelve, has such a typically Schumannesque theme, an allegro brillante, to end this work. Ax combines sparkling playing with such thoughtfulness, with so many little wonders that this etude could stand alone with all its emotional and rhythmic variety.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly. Emanuel Ax brings so many wonderful things to these works yet for all his authority he retains such energy and spontaneity. The recording made at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, is excellent.

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