With the maturity that only comes from a career spanning 45 years, Emanuel Ax gave a delightful performance at Symphony Center on Sunday afternoon. The program was a careful blend of music that, in the first half, showed a more subdued and delicate style, and, after intermission, gave off fireworks.
The program was initially going to start with an early sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven, but instead Ax played a later sonata by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This work, Piano Sonata in F major, K. 535/K. 494, had an unusual gestation period. The finale was originally issued in 1786 as a stand-alone rondo. Two years later Mozart expanded it and added two movements, with the result being Mozart’s finest foray into the form. It showcases him at his most sublime, and hearing a performance by Emanuel Ax was a real treat.
It opens with a simple, charming melody played solo in the right hand that is quickly joined by a four note left hand accompaniment; several measures later the left hand grabs the theme and the right hand accompanies. Mozart then takes this theme in all sorts of directions, dissects it, adds a secondary theme, and sends it into moody minor keys and unexpected harmonies. Each section ends with a delightful passage of arpeggios that starts quietly at the bottom and ascends the keyboard with a roar. Ax played it very warmly with careful phrasing and dynamic contrasts. The melody seemed to waft from his fingers. The initial run through of the opening movement’s first part was marred by an awkward use of the damper pedal and a prominently missed note—but these were remedied in the repeat.
Up next were three pieces by Franz Liszt, a composer who often gives performers the opportunity to show off histrionics. The Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, from book 2 of several works documenting Liszt’s travels, offers a rarely heard soulful side of Liszt. These three transcriptions that the composer made of his own songs tend toward thoughtful reflection, with a sound reminiscent of a Chopin Nocturne. Rather than fireworks, they feature wonderfully crafted, poignant melodies.
The first piece Benedetto sia ‘l giorno starts very quietly with runs and musical figures that are very restrained by Liszt’s standards. Ax provided wonderful passion in this performance, precisely voicing the melody and rising to the challenge in the brief moments of fire. The next one, Pace non trovo, e non ho da far Guerra, features another slow, charming melody, but it offers greater room for lively technique, which Ax also handled well, giving the appropriate intensity within a mood that was generally restrained. The last one, I’ vidi in terra angelici costume, offered a more lyrical and expressive melody on which, again, Ax showed polish.
For the final work in the opening half, Ax went back over 120 years to Johann Sebastian Bach’s third and final group of dance suites for solo keyboard, the Partitas. Bach wrote these masterpieces for harpsichord, with the piano having just been invented. A harpsichord plucks the notes with uniform volume. A performance on the piano allows far greater dynamic leeway and expression.
In performing Partita No. 5 in G-major, Ax took full advantage of piano’s dynamic range with wonderful periods of contrast within each of the seven dances that make up this work. The opening dance Preambule provided some of the fireworks missing from the Liszt. It’s filled with rapid fire runs that Ax played with marvelous uniformity in touch. He was seamless when the runs started in one hand and finished in the other. The six other dances that make up this Partita vary in tempo and touch, and Ax gave each a thoughtful interpretation.
The second half of the concert was devoted to one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s greatest masterpieces, Piano Sonata in C-major, Op. 53, which was dedicated to Count Waldstein, an early patron of the composer. At the start of his career, Beethoven experimented with the classical forms perfected by Mozart and Joseph Haydn. He tried different types and structures of movements within larger works. A couple of times during his early phase he came up with something completely new, such as the Moonlight Sonata, but he only hinted at the revolutionary changes that would soon be coming from his quill.
The Waldstein sonata was the first work to be published in Beethoven’s new style, kicking off with a bang what has become known as his middle period. This two-movement work is long, thematically expansive, and fiery, but it also has contrasting sections of quiet reflection and charm. It explores remote, unexpected keys, unusual movement structures, and levels of passion previously unheard.
This sonata would have been quite a bit longer had Beethoven followed his original plan of inserting a slow movement in the middle. In one of the few instances where he listened to outside criticism, he took it out and issued it separately as the Andante Favori in F-major. It was published without an opus number, WoO 57, with a name Beethoven himself provided in recognition of its popularity. Before breaking into the Waldstein sonata, Ax offered a thoughtful rendition of this charming rondo.
As for the Waldstein sonata itself, in their handbook Music for Piano, James Friskin and Irwin Freundlich note that it, “Requires a powerful and brilliant technique.” Ax was certainly up to the task on Sunday afternoon. He played the rapid opening chords at a slightly slower pace than usual, which gave him some flexibility to extract all the movement’s power and brilliance.
Instead of the Andante Favori, Beethoven substituted a slow introduction to the finale, which Ax played carefully, with the right mood. The finale starts calmly and very quietly, with the right hand playing rolling chords while the left hand provides a warm melody that starts low, but crosses over to higher notes on the keyboard. As a rondo, this opening returns a few more times, and Ax gave it the same delicate treatment each time until the last, when Beethoven speeds it up. Ax’s approach provided a wonderful juxtaposition with the stormy sections in between. Ax cruised through it crisply and passionately until the very end, where Beethoven throws in a flashy passage of glissando octaves only made possible because, being in C-major, there were no back keys to play. The glissandos came off rather clunky, but no matter: overall the performance was masterful.
In response to the well deserved ovations, Ax offered two encores: Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15 no. 2, followed by Liszt’s Valse oubliée, no. 1, which showed a bit more fire than the Liszt from earlier in the afternoon. In a sense, they offered a template for the whole program: a subdued, delicate opening, and a flashy second half.