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Menahem Pressler

menahem-presslerSo there’s still hope for my future career as a soloist. Menahem Pressler made his Symphony Center debut yesterday at the age of 92. It is true that he had been a legendary chamber musician for about 60 years, since founding the Beaux Arts Trio, but I still have over 30 years to correct that deficiency. If he can make his concerto debut with the Berlin Philharmonic just ten years short of his own centenary, then surely anything is possible.

Pressler has always exuded a sense of joy in his playing, whether through the impish wit he brought to Haydn or the lyrical rapture he conveyed in Dvorak. The very act of dedicating your life to the collaborative art of chamber music seems to indicate a certain humility, a willingness to subsume ego to the cause of music-making, although it might be that he just liked being among friends. That is, after all, the essence of chamber music – affectionate conviviality, intimate conversation, an act of communion. Still, it is quite touching to see the almost child-like delight with which he is enjoying this new phase in his life now that the Beaux Arts Trio is no more, a delight that his audiences seem willing to share.

As you would expect, he is quite frail, and had to be assisted to the piano by a solicitous page turner, but that made it even more moving when he started playing Mozart’s Rondo in A-minor with the same glowing cantabile tone that he had in his prime. His playing may not have been immaculate, but I don’t think he made an ugly sound the entire afternoon. His ears are as acute as ever, ensuring that every texture was beautifully balanced, the inner voices gently emphasized, the accompaniments quietly supportive. His fingers are not as fleet as before, but his touch has not deserted him.

This was especially true in the Kurtág that started the second half, the Impromptu al ongarese, which was dedicated to Pressler, a study in subtle sonorities, grave and haunting. He then played more challenging Debussy’s Estampes with a remarkable lucidity. The opening Pagodes was perhaps conveyed in more muted colors than usual, but that only gave the music a dream-like quality that seemed perfectly apt to this naïve vision of the orient. Even the lively Jardins sous la Pluie was played with some grace and agility, although his fingers couldn’t quite keep up with his intentions in the final peroration.

He ended with some Chopin, three mazurkas followed by the third Ballade. If the mazurkas brought out the most confident and rhythmically alert playing of the concert, it was fascinating to see how he tamed the more strenuous passages in the Ballade. He can’t play with the effortless speed and abandon of younger virtuosi, but he nevertheless showed great skill and cunning in concealing any technical limitations behind a curtain of warm phrasing and tonal beauty.

I confess that my mind drifted during the long contemplative passages in the Schubert G-major sonata, D894, that filled the first half. This is, in many ways, a work well suited to Pressler’s temperament, but Schubert occasionally jolts us from our meditation with passionate outbursts of anguish or defiance that Pressler couldn’t quite deliver. This is one of Schubert’s most visionary works, but it requires intense concentration by the pianist to hold its long phrases in absolute focus. Still, after a rather plodding scherzo, he played the tricky finale with quiet affection and charm.

I last heard Menahem Pressler about thirty years ago when the Beaux Arts Trio played in a cavernous exposition hall in Grenoble. It was the antithesis of the intimate salon that their repertoire was written for, a sign of their superstar status. Their success was surely due to Pressler, who brought zest to the music without ever overpowering his partners. It is good to see that his love of life and music is undiminished after such a long career. Now back to the piano. I have some catching up to do.

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András Schiff

The 1876 Steinway

The 1876 Steinway

András Schiff believes that life is too short to play anything other than masterpieces. Someone had asked him why he chooses such imposing programs. For example, in the last ten years, I have heard him play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the entire second book of Preludes and Fugues (in one concert), and all six Partitas (in one concert). In London, he recently played both the Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, both lasting an hour or so (in one concert). These are feats of endurance as much for the audience as for the player, but he has disdain for those pianists who have a more frivolous approach to programming; in other words, nearly all his colleagues. Even the greatest composers were prepared to let their hair down every now and then. Beethoven, after all, composed the Rage Over a Lost Penny as well as the Diabelli Variations, but I don’t expect to hear Schiff play the former any time soon.

At least his current series has more than one composer in each concert, although it shares his obsession with completist programming. It is quite common to schedule the three final sonatas of Beethoven or Schubert in the same concert, but Schiff is playing the final three sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, programming one by each composer over three concerts. On Sunday, in the second program of the series, he played their penultimate sonatas. He started with a speech, explaining why there were two pianos on stage. The first was one of Symphony Center’s conventional black Steinway Model Ds, but the second was an 1876 Steinway, restored by Obi Manteufel in Seattle. Schiff made the self-evident point that no one piano is ideal for every piece, and argued that the 1876 model provided a bridge into the sound of the fortepianos that Mozart would have known, without being inaudible in a large hall. He challenged us to disagree with him that sound world of the older piano brought new insights into these masterpieces.

I am ready to meet that challenge. The sound of the Manteufel was considerably thinner than the modern Steinway, and I found the treble to be rather shrill, particularly when Schiff over-projected the melodic lines of the opening Mozart sonata, giving the music a hectoring strident quality. It is true that the pianistic textures were more transparent, although that is as much due to Schiff’s style of playing as to the piano itself. He has always been adept at bringing out inner melodic lines; sometimes, the effect is revelatory and even magical, but at other times, it can seem purely didactic. The boundary between the two can be very thin, and Schiff crossed from one side to the other many times throughout the concert.

Two of the pieces he played have a strong association for me with Alfred Brendel. I was introduced to him  as a teenager during a series of masterclasses he gave in London, by a mutual friend, who told him I was learning Beethoven’s Sonata in A Flat, op. 110. His only response was to express concern that I would probably have to change my fingering as I grew older. He was, of course, correct, but I will get it right eventually. Among several felicities, Schiff had a very graceful take on the second movement, which normally sounds truculent and bad-tempered, but I was unmoved by the arioso lamentations of the complex final movement, which seemed mannered rather than tragic. There is a danger of turning the gently sobbing phrases into mawkish melodrama, but in this performance, the final arioso section was curiously withdrawn, its etiolated tone an insufficient substitute for genuine feeling. Of course, Schiff had no problem with the counterpoint, and I thought he was effective in conveying the collapse of energy after the effortful first fugue, and the spiritual ecstasy of the second.

The second piece, Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D959, is one I first heard in Brendel’s masterclass, one of the supreme moments of musical revelation in my life. I don’t believe that any other pianist has understood as well as Brendel the way Schubert’s music has to ebb and flow in order to express its full humanity, allowing the emotion to breathe through the structure rather than be confined by it. In Brendel’s performances, particularly in the slow movement, the music would sometimes hang on a single expectant chord, signaling a moment of inward transformation. I have never understood why he is thought of as cerebral when he was capable of such intense empathy. Fortunately, his students, such as Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis, have absorbed those lessons and continue the tradition. Schiff probably finds Brendel’s approach self-indulgent. In similar passages, he maintained a consistent pulse, gliding over such emotional transitions without a pause. There were things to admire in the performance. I was disappointed that he chose to play the sonata on the Manteufel, but it came into its own in the first movement development section, where, by applying a lot of pedal, Schiff made the piano sound like a tinkly musical box, capturing well the music’s child-like excitement and following it with surprisingly intense drama. He was also very effective in the scherzo, which I have never heard played with such elegance and lightness of touch. But his didactic tendencies recurred in the finale, destroying some of Schubert’s most exquisite harmonies by over-playing hidden musical lines that I’m sure Schubert never intended to be heard. Not all music is counterpoint.

Schiff refuses to play in his native Hungary, while the current authoritarian regime is in power, but he is instead embedded in London’s musical establishment, with a knighthood from the Queen as the ultimate affirmation of his status.  He is a wonderful pianist, who, at his best, is able to make music dance with effortless poise and wit, as his Bach encore demonstrated. However, I am concerned that he is becoming increasingly ascetic as he grows older, perhaps equating austerity with profundity. When he played the Bach Partitas recently, I was quite shocked at how plain the slow movements were, devoid of the affection he displayed in his youth. While his interpretations are always highly original, I often feel he is delivering a lecture on the music rather than living through it. And I hope he doesn’t bring the Manteufel with him next time as a teaching aid.

Maurizio Pollini II

Maurizio Pollini

Maurizio Pollini

Following Pollini’s last recital in Chicago, I saw him in a French TV broadcast playing Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X. He played with extraordinary energy and concentration, matched thankfully by a virtuoso page turner, showing that even at 73, he remains commendably committed to contemporary music (well, it was written in my lifetime anyway). The Symphony Center management doesn’t seem to share that commitment, since they invited him back to play another recital of Schumann and Chopin, very similar to the one he gave last year. In fact, the concert was advertised as “Pollini Plays Chopin” so it appears they are even nervous of Schumann’s box-office appeal.

It seemed to work. The hall was much fuller than last year, with an enthusiastic crowd that was eager to pay homage to the master. I don’t know what they made of the first piece, Schumann’s Allegro in B minor, op. 8 although they applauded nonetheless. Before the performance, I was puzzled that I had never heard it before, but I soon realized why it is so seldom played. Remarkably for Schumann, it is almost devoid of any inspiration, a collection of romantic gestures with nothing to say. Fortunately, that cannot be said of his Fantasy in C, op. 17, arguably the finest piano music he wrote, a passionate love letter to Clara Wieck. Pollini made a famous recording of it in the seventies, whose qualities seemed to contradict his tendency to objectify music. My theory at the time was that the work was so emotional that it could withstand a relatively detached approach, but hearing it again recently, it really did seem to bring out a more personal response from him, particularly in the slow third movement, which he played with a movingly lucid poetry. He doesn’t have quite the poise or expressive clarity he had forty years ago, so the performance seemed less focused, often beautiful but without drawing me in to Schumann’s quiet rapture. I have to say that I was extremely nervous when we approached the end of the second movement, with its notorious contrary leaps in both hands, a passage that has upended many fine pianists. However, Pollini was wily enough to disguise any possible technical insecurity, one of the benefits of his long experience. He can still bring these pieces off, just not with the same magisterial authority or electric precision that he once had.

He can still dazzle with his technique though, particularly in the rapid finger work that Chopin often calls for. As in his last recital, the second half of fairly late Chopin was much more successful, starting off with the Barcarolle and finishing with the third Scherzo, sandwiching a couple of Nocturnes and the Polonaise Fantasie, which probably brought the best playing of the scheduled program. This music has been in his blood for well over fifty years, so there is a natural flow and expressiveness to his Chopin playing that only occasionally seems routine. The best performance of all, by far, was this third encore, Chopin’s first Ballade in G minor, which was beautifully judged throughout, with a gently questing introduction followed by mercurial outbursts and a lithe, thrilling climax. It’s difficult to think, given how long he has been playing at the highest level, that he had finally overcome any nerves, but he does seem to be less tentative and more relaxed when playing encores.

I hope that the Chicago management doesn’t ask for more Chopin next time. It seems to me that, to some extent, he is drawing on his reserves of experience to play, if not on auto-pilot, at least without the sense of wonder at engaging with such personal music. I think he is more naturally an intellectual player, so I would love to hear what the wisdom of his years brings to Beethoven, for example. To be fair, he was programmed to play the final three sonatas a few seasons ago, but cancelled at the last minute. Let’s see if “Pollini Plays Beethoven” can also draw in the crowds.

Olli Mustonen

olli-mustonenI was once mistaken for Olli Mustonen, though not because of my piano-playing. After attending a recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, I was chatting to an acquaintance that I occasionally saw at concerts, a friend of Alfred Brendel, Imogen Cooper and, it seemed, half the other pianists based in London. A distinguished lady approached him to say hello, and then suddenly turned to me and said, “You must be Olli Mustonen.” I seem to recall that she was a concert promoter or agent, or the wife of one, so perhaps she was hoping to sign me up. Disappointed to discover who I really was, she ignored me from then on.

Olli Mustonen was born ten years after me, but this incident occurred about twenty-five years ago, when I looked much younger than my age, and we both had rather boyish looks with flopping brown hair. Sadly, I don’t think I would be mistaken for him today. At the time, Mustonen had just started making waves, partly through a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Variations, Op. 34 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. I found the Beethoven revelatory, with an astonishing range of touch, articulation, and pianistic color, manically eccentric playing that seemed ideally matched to Beethoven at his most quirkily inventive. My friend told me that Alfred Brendel loved the Beethoven but disliked the Schumann, while Imogen Cooper felt the opposite. Mustonen has been dividing his listeners ever since.

Today at Symphony Center in Chicago, I at last had a chance to reevaluate this controversial pianist. He played an unusual program consisting of Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, a group of Chopin Mazurkas, one of his own compositions, and some late Scriabin. I can report that he has not mellowed at all in the intervening years. In fact, the opening Tchaikovsky revealed just how egregious his mannerisms could be. Although occasionally mawkish (The New Doll is followed in quick succession by The Sick Doll and then The Doll’s Burial), these are on the whole touchingly simple pieces, unaffected distillations of Tchaikovsky’s melodic genius. But Mustonen doesn’t do simplicity. Nearly every phrase was bent out of recognizable shape by exaggerated dynamic contrasts, stentorian declamations suddenly dissolving into pianissimos within a single bar without any discernible musical logic. The only piece I was familiar with was the Mazurka, which I had to play for a music exam as a child. I am fairly sure that the Associated Board examiner would have failed me if I had played it like Mustonen.

It is frustrating because he has a quite extraordinary range of interpretative tools at his disposal, if only he used them with a little more restraint. He was more successful with some of the European postcards in the collection, such as the Neapolitan and German pastiches, as well as with the Chopin Mazurkas that followed, music that survived his extravagant rhythmic freedom and benefited from his richly colored climaxes.

The music after the interval was a great improvement. Olli Mustonen played his own piano sonata, Jehkin Iivana, named after a nineteenth century exponent of rune singing from his native Finland. This was vividly atmospheric music, alternating brooding chordal passages over a gently tolling bell with music of bracing rhythmic energy. It was virtuoso story-telling of mythic grandeur, if not mythic length. Perhaps surprisingly, I felt that, in playing his own music, Mustonen displayed the kind of interpretative discipline that I had missed until now.

With the final two works by Scriabin, his tenth piano sonata and the miniature tone poem, Vers La Flamme, Mustonen at last found a composer that matched him for idiosyncrasy. This is music for the hothouse (pun intended), both pieces slowly building up to coruscating climaxes of trills and tremolos. In the sonata, the tension subsides at the end, so I think Mustonen, who suppressed applause between the two pieces by performing elaborate curlicues with his arms, intended Vers La Flamme to be its culmination, the final realization of Scriabin’s apocalyptic vision.

Olli Mustonen can be a maddening artist. Given the right music, his fertile imagination can coerce you into hearing music with fresh ears and make it come alive in unexpected ways. But given the wrong music, and that probably includes the majority of the piano repertoire, he can bury the music beneath spiky staccatos, hairpin dynamics, and clipped articulation. I think the problem is that he needs to appropriate whatever music he plays, recreating it in his own image, so it is perhaps fitting that the best performance of the afternoon was of his own composition. The golden age of pianist-composers is long over (Mustonen played two encores by the last of them, Sergei Prokofiev), so I found it quite moving to have a taste of what that era was like this afternoon.

 

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

Apparently, Scriabin is not good box office. After his Chicago recital this afternoon, Garrick Ohlsson said that, to celebrate the centenary of his death, he had offered a couple of all-Scriabin programs to a number of concert halls, but most had requested he include other composers in the mix. Since he played Prokofiev and Rachmaninov in the first half, Symphony Center was evidently one of them, which might explain why the Chicago program manager fidgeted a little uncomfortably at Ohlsson’s disclosure. The concert managers’ caution may have been justified, however, because I would have expected a pianist as distinguished as Ohlsson, after all the only American ever to win first prize in the Chopin competition albeit 45 years ago, to fill more seats. It’s a shame because the second half devoted to Scriabin’s music contained by far the most ravishing playing of the afternoon.

Ohlsson’s other confession during the post-concert reception was that he had been unwell at the end of last year, and so had lost vital preparation time for this recital. The most obvious consequence was that he had not memorized most of the first-half music, surprisingly even the Rachmaninov Corelli Variations, which he recorded only a few years ago. It might also have explained why much of his playing seemed rather cautious. I was originally going to describe it as tentative, but I don’t think that’s correct. Ohlsson doesn’t lack either confidence or technique, but I think he prefers to play within his considerable abilities, exuding authority and poise rather than visceral excitement, even when playing something as frenzied as Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique, a favorite encore of many pianists (I heard Kissin pulverize it a few years ago – Ohlsson was just as exciting without feeling the need to destroy the piano). The Suggestion was pretty fast and I suspect he will speed up the remaining Prokofiev works when they are more under his fingers.

The Prokofiev pieces, his Op. 2 and Op. 4 collections, were teenage compositions where he was still struggling to find his voice while simultaneously trying to shock his teachers. The most evocative, Reminiscence, seemed an astringent pre-echo of the great slow movements of the war sonatas. The Rachmaninov, on the other hand, is a fully mature work. Ohlsson played the opening theme with a touching affection. It was also daringly slow, which I found compelling until I realized that he wasn’t going to speed up for the subsequent variations. Usually, the chromatic lyrical variations at the center form an oasis of calm between the more tempestuous sections, but the storms were less than hurricane force this time. This seems to be his conception of the piece, not a result of inadequate rehearsal, because the tempi of his recording on iTunes are much the same.

I had no such reservations in the second half devoted to Scriabin. Ohlsson seems to have a natural affinity for the composer, reveling in the delicate sonorities of the two miniatures, Désir and Fragilité, that he chose as exquisite preludes to two of his one-movement sonatas. The first was the seventh sonata, the White Mass, which evokes for me a volcano that is threatening to erupt. The music is suffused with subterranean rumblings, interrupted by occasional outbursts as if rocks are hurled into the air before falling back into a seething cauldron of trills and pulsing chords. It appears randomly constructed, but the sense of tension is palpable throughout, even though, in the end, the music subsides back into nothing. This was early in Scriabin’s apocalyptic phase, so the music presumably represents the groaning of a world approaching the end of time.

The fifth sonata is more highly structured, but the various sections emerge from each other with great expressive freedom. Ruminative passages become gradually more agitated before being swept up by faster passages of leaping chords that build to exultant climaxes, before subsiding back so that the whole process can be repeated. It is surely one of Scriabin’s greatest works, and it brought out easily the best playing of the afternoon. Whether in the languid opening section or the exhilarating perorations, he produced a dazzling array of colors and textures, while keeping a sense of structural coherence and momentum. This is no easy task. Richter told Bruno Monsaingeon that it was the most difficult piece he had played.

This recital revealed for me a surprising side to Garrick Ohlsson’s playing that I should have known. If you look at his discography, he has naturally concentrated on the conventional repertoire, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov and, of course, Chopin. He has recorded the Debussy Études, but not much else from France. And yet, he is a master of pianistic color in impressionistic music, caressing the piano to produce the most fragile delicate textures with great subtlety and warmth. I was unaware of his affection for Scriabin, although he has recorded quite a lot of his music, and would have loved to sit through an afternoon bathed in the sound of him playing Scriabin’s more reflective miniatures – if the Chicago management had let me.

Maurizio Pollini

Maurizio PolliniMaurizio Pollini had an almost legendary status as a pianist when I first started attending concerts in the 1970’s. Having won the Chopin competition in 1960, he famously withdrew from the concert hall for a number of years, but reemerged producing a series of recordings of music such as the Chopin Études, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata, that combined a high seriousness with stunning technical control. His fellow Milanese, Claudio Abbado once said that, whereas he admired many other pianists, Pollini was the only one he loved. I always found that comment mystifying – of all Pollini’s many virtues as a pianist, I have never thought of him as lovable. I once attended an all-Mozart recital that Pollini gave in the Festival Hall, in which he transformed the sprightly D-major sonata into a portentous war horse. An up-and-coming Asian pianist I knew at the time (and probably shouldn’t name) vowed never to attend another Pollini recital. I wasn’t quite so outraged but I think it was probably 20 years or so before I heard him again live.

Pollini seems to have mellowed with age. Now an elder statesman of the concert hall, his playing has become warmer and much more supple than I remembered. I couldn’t even imagine him programming Chopin’s Berceuse before, let alone playing it with such genuine affection. He displayed the same tenderness at the start of his Chicago recital in Schumann’s lyrical Arabesque and in his first encore, Chopin’s D-flat major Nocturne. These were probably the highlights of an afternoon that was rather uneven because, if his playing seems less Olympian in spirit, it has also become a little less Olympian in virtuosity.

This was a real problem in Schumann’s Kreisleriana. It’s not that he couldn’t play the notes, but he seemed unable to control the pianistic textures. He has the occasional tendency to over-accentuate the left hand. The opening section starts with a torrent of notes in the right hand, which Pollini played very fast, but they could hardly be heard beneath the pounding octaves in the left hand. Since this tonal imbalance was combined with severe over-pedalling, Schumann’s complex, often contrapuntal, textures were frequently turned into impressionistic mush. The quieter music was more successful, although I don’t think that Pollini is comfortable with the degree of introspection that Schumann demands. He can play with a quiet dignity, but I don’t think he can convey the intensity of feeling that lies behind every note that Schumann wrote. And the final piece, which should be a spectral gallop, was devoid of any mystery. I think Kreisleriana is just too idiosyncratic for Pollini’s rather objective temperament.

On the other hand, Chopin is more overtly poetic, less inward, so it was no surprise that the second half was more successful. The centerpiece was his Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, with its famous funeral march. The first movement, which suffered just a little from left-hand-itis, was nevertheless delivered with an inexorable drive and sweep. After a scherzo that was daringly fast, if not quite effortless, the funeral march was initially withdrawn and surprisingly moving for a piece that can sound so hackneyed. The final movement is surely the most enigmatic music ever written in the nineteenth century, a swirl of notes with no discernible theme, key, or pulse, apparently formless but still somehow compelling, like one of Turner’s impressionistic watercolors. This was Pollini at his most technically impressive, giving the illusion of a seamless stream of sound not punctuated by notes. Some pianists play this with more dynamic contrast, as if constructing a narrative drama out of the music, but in some ways, Pollini’s more abstract approach made the music seem even bolder.

His official program ended with the famous A-flat Polonaise, perhaps the most famous genuine war-horse of the piano literature, and he gave two generous encores, finishing with Chopin’s third Scherzo – I’m not sure he would have been as anxious to please forty years ago. I shouldn’t give the impression that I hated his playing then – with the right music, his innate musicality, limpid tone, and effortless technique were a marvel. Two of my favorite memories from that period were when Pollini performed the two Brahms concertos with Abbado conducting the LSO, aristocratic playing of great beauty and visceral excitement. Human nature is fickle and I can’t quite decide if I prefer the greater warmth of his playing now, with its signs of frailty, or wish he had miraculously stayed on Mount Olympus as a demi-god, where he was perhaps a little less lovable.

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.