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Archive for May, 2014

Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax

When I first read that Emanuel Ax’s recital in Chicago this afternoon was part of “The Brahms Project,” I assumed this was a title chosen by marketing consultants to make the concerts seem bold and edgy. It’s certainly snappier than calling the series “Another Excuse to Program Some Brahms.” However, this was unfair. In fact, Ax had commissioned two contemporary composers to produce piano pieces inspired by Brahms F-A-F (Frei Aber Froh) motto. Perhaps Missy Mazzoli was traumatized as a child practicing Brahms G-minor Rhapsody, because her contribution, Bolts of Loving Thunder, tormented Ax with relentless hand-crossings that mimicked the rhapsody’s treacherous opening bars. Ax confessed that the piece would be impossible to play if he gained any more weight. To my untrained ear, the music had an attractive, if not too challenging, harmonic palette, a bit reminiscent of John Adams, with whom she shares a post-minimalist use of repeated phrases to generate tension and resolution.

The other music, Hommage à Brahms, by Brett Dean was a set of three more overtly contemporary interludes that were designed to be played between the four pieces that make up Brahms op. 119. I’m not sure that they can really be said to have illuminated Brahms’ music, which still seemed reassuringly familiar whenever normal service was resumed. I once wrote how Paul Lewis started playing Mozart’s A-minor Rondo without pause after some Ligeti, giving the eighteenth century chromaticism a jolt of modernity. Here, it was more as if the new music helped to cleanse the palette between courses of Brahms rather cozy romanticism, rather than show it in a new light. The third piece was a particularly haunting example of night music, a quiet reflection before the bombast of the final Brahms Rhapsody. 

There was nothing cozy about the opening piece, Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 2 in F-sharp minor. Ax says he chose it because he had never heard it performed live. I had heard Krystian Zimerman play all three Brahms sonatas in his London debut, following his Chopin competition triumph, but it is true that only the third is played regularly. The second was written when Brahms was only 19, and shows the raw energy and undisciplined inventiveness of youth. The first movement in particular is a riot of defiant octaves and jagged rhythms while the second has the spectral quality of an eerie ghost story. In fact, the whole sonata has a touch of the mephistophelean about it, concluding with a devilishly comic burlesque, perhaps the closest Brahms ever came to Berlioz or Liszt. The performance was completely assured, arguably too assured for such wild unruly music.

The final piece was Brahms Variations on a Theme of Handel. This year, we have had performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The Brahms set completes a remarkable trilogy, although it doesn’t have quite the same epic stature as its predecessors. This is partly a matter of length – at under thirty minutes, it is under half the length of the other two – but it also lacks their ambition, the sense that all musical expression is being explored. For example, instead of the moving adagios that precede the final variations in the earlier works, Brahms gives us a musical box variation (which is enchanting but hardly profound). Nevertheless, it’s wonderful music that is expertly crafted and full of beautiful things.

It is a piece that Emanuel Ax loves. He can produce the most lovely cantabile tone, with fluid phrasing and effortless textural balance. He was extremely effective in concealing any awkwardness in the piano writing – variations that can seem clumsy in less expert hands were unfailingly lithe and fluent, and he has a flawless instinct for pacing the music so that it never flags. The final fugue was especialy powerful because it was so measured. I once heard Barenboim ruin a fine performance with a headlong rush into the final page, but Ax is too poised to make a mistake like that. My only complaint is that for all his tonal beauty, Ax rarely conveys the intense intimacy that some pianists do, the sense that we are sharing something intensely personal and private.

After the concert, I asked Ax if he felt that the seventies, a decade in which Murray Perahia, Krystian Zimerman, and Ax himself came to prominence, was a golden age of pianism. He is disarmingly modest and refused the compliment. He thought the new generation of pianists emerging today were even finer, capable of doing anything, but needed, as he did, a certain amount of luck to have successful careers. He was looking forward to retirement from such intense competition, a sentiment that was not shared by his many affectionate admirers in the audience.

 

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Nikolai Lugansky

Nikolai Lugansky

I was somewhat startled to read that Nikolai Lugansky had been made a People’s Artist of Russia in 2013, not because I thought he didn’t deserve such an honour, but because I didn’t think that a title that is so redolent of the former Soviet Union would still be in use. Then again, in the UK, the Queen still makes artists commanders of an empire that ceased to exist long ago, so perhaps such anachronisms are not so uncommon. Lugansky shares his title with such musical luminaries as Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, but Vladimir Ashkenazy is not on the list so I guess that his defection in the sixties is not yet forgiven. If he had been born thirty years earlier, Lugansky would probably have been pitted against Van Cliburn in a Cold War battle for the accolade of most glamorous pianist, assuming he didn’t defect first. Fortunately, pianists don’t have to carry such baggage around any more; they just have to compete against a formidable number of other prodigiously talented pianists for our attention.

In his recital in Chicago’s Symphony Center today, Lugansky, casually dressed in black shirt (fashionably untucked) and trousers, displayed a relaxed authority at the keyboard, apparently unruffled by the technical demands of a challenging program. It was mostly Russian music, but he chose to start with César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. Most pianists take their cue from the title, with its homage to Bach, and bring out the contrapuntal aspects of the music with clean articulation and strong lines, but Lugansky used copious pedal to transform the music into an impressionistic blur. It may not have been authentic (although the Cavaillé-Coll organs that Franck played much of his life also produced great washes of sound), but it was extremely beautiful, a kind of wistful reverie on themes by Franck that could have been penned by Rachmaninov.

Lugansky followed with Prokofiev’s 4th Piano Sonata. Only three of Prokofiev’s sonatas, the so-called war sonatas, nos. 6, 7, and 8, are played regularly, although the shorter 3rd sonata occasionally gets a look-in. It turns out that there is a reason for this. The 4th sonata, in particular, lacks any of the melodic inspiration that characterizes most of Prokofiev’s music, even in his early enfant terrible years. There is a drab brooding quality to the first two movements, which appear to meander aimlessly in search of meaning, although the third movement at least brings a jolt of virtuosic energy that Lugansky had no problem responding to. Prokofiev raided teenage notebooks to write this work, but perhaps he should have left them to gather dust for another few years.

In the second half, Lugansky was in his element, playing the thirteen Rachmaninov Preludes, op 32. Although we think of him as a crowd-pleaser, Rachmaninov could write quite elliptical music, with extremely complex harmonic and rhythmic textures. Without the kind of effortless facility that Lugansky possesses, the music can quickly become an incoherent scramble. There was little danger of that this afternoon, with playing that combined rhythmic panache with finely judged sonorities and often tender affection. Perhaps the most moving of all was the final prelude in D-flat-minor, which started with a quiet dignity before building to a climax made all the more powerful by its restraint.

With the pressure of the recital over, Lugansky let his hair down (figuratively) with three encores. The second was a dazzling account of Chopin’s F-major Étude from the op. 10 set, played with a gossamer lightness of touch at astonishing speed. I think that we get more than our fair share in Chicago of completist recital programs, such as András Schiff playing all Bach’s Partitas or Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing both books of Debussy Préludes, but I’ll withdraw my criticism if the Symphony Center management bring Lugansky back to play the remaining Chopin Études.

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