Courtesy of Cornell Concert Series

November 9, 2015

Art and Craft: Emmanuel Ax at Bailey Hall

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After dining on the well-balanced meal served by András Schiff at Carnegie Hall (see my review in last week’s Sun), sitting at the table of Emanuel Ax’s solo performance at Bailey Hall last Friday was like losing a Michelin star. The flavor was all there, but it lacked a certain aftertaste. In light of this, dear reader, take the following impressions with a proverbial grain of salt.

Courtesy of Cornell Concert Series

Courtesy of Cornell Concert Series

Hearing Ax play in an enthusiastically attended venue was theoretically exciting, but in practice was a mixed bag of tricks. I say “tricks” because so much of what went down on stage was impressive in craft yet otherwise inconsistent in art. The concert’s all-Beethoven first half went from day to night in this regard, shining with exuberance in the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, but spiraling into an empty — if articulate — tangle by the Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major. The earlier sonata, affectionately known as the “Pathétique,” was a suitable vehicle for Ax’s effortless runs and trills, the kind born only from decades of experience at the keyboard. The famous Adagio at center spoke with the clarity of a translator who pays attention to every punctuation and diacritical mark. The final movement smiled like the reflection of a face in its prime, and emphasized the composer’s blend of declaration and love letter. The later sonata, however, felt like a house struggling to build itself before inhabitants came flocking in from afar. The Adagio was especially plodding and not quite present enough to imbue the final Rondo with retribution. Sitting between these, in both sequence and temperament, were the Six Variations on a Theme in F major, Op. 34, which were by turns arid and delightful.

The Four Scherzi of Frédéric Chopin comprising the concert’s second half were a natural fit for Ax, who navigated their finger-busting challenges with ease. Too much ease, perhaps, for beside the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, so dynamically brilliant as to outshine every note on either side of it, one was hard-pressed to read much between the lines of the stories being told. Each of these pieces was a showstopper, to be sure, but after the fourth such deluge of finesse and flourish, the peaks and valleys started to feel more horizontal. And if the Chopin encore came across as a little excessive, it was only because by that point it felt like Ax was playing more for himself.

The above might seem cynical, and the Schiff card a poor excuse for this vaguely critical review, but by no means did I walk away with hard feelings. On the contrary, it was an unforgettable joy to witness Ax sharpen his axe in one respect above all: not in what he played, but in what he didn’t play. His respect for silence was palpable. If his mechanics were textbooks, then his pauses were graphic novels. Each seemed penned in stark black and white, allowing us to see his fingers thinking in midair and his careful approach to rhythm. Assuming this was the dichotomy he was trying to achieve, he left trailing a successful shadow indeed.