Pianist Emanuel Ax (photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Review: Pianist Emanuel Ax engages with fresh and familiar works

Mark Gresham | 25 MAR 2019

On Sunday afternoon at Spivey Hall, esteemed pianist Emanuel Ax performed an appealing solo recital comprised of short works, mostly presented as complete cycles but with a couple of singletons in the mix. The program, with which he has been touring this season, was a substantial body of canonical piano repertoire by Brahms, Schumann, Ravel and Chopin, with the exception of one unfamiliar contemporary work by British composer George Benjamin.

It was an insightful, autumnal performance by the estimable 69-year-old Ax, whose well-established reputation as a top-level performer leaves him nothing to prove. He chose Spivey’s “Clara” Hamburg Steinway* as his partner in the endeavor and together they served the music most admirably.

Ax began with the Rhapsodies, Op. 79 by Johannes Brahms, of which there are two: the first in B minor, the second in G minor. Brahms had at first left them unnamed, but before publication he asked the dedicatee, Elizabeth von Herzogenberg, her opinion and she suggested “Rhapsodies” – a bit of a misnomer because both of these intensive, passionate works have formal structures that are very clear.


Interestingly, there were no piano sonatas in Sunday’s  program – zero. Of all the repertoire presented, these two Rhapsodies came closest to the genre due to their sonata-alluding forms, the second more conventionally so than the first.

In great contrast to those meaty handfuls, Ax then turned to an intriguing 21st century work, George Benjamin’s set of 10 miniature tone poems entitled Piano Figures. The entire required only a dozen minutes or so to play, but showed great variety in its brevity. Though not technically demanding, they were attractive and well-crafted.

Ax followed it with Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestiicke, Op. 12, eight pieces which sounded very much at home under Ax’s hands on the “Clara” piano that is the namesake of the composer’s wife, herself a respected pianist and composer. After intermission came another group of eight, Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, with its brilliant mix of impressionist and  modernist sentiments.


The balance of the program was devoted to music of Frédéric Chopin: the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1, Three Mazurkas, Op. 50 and Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat major, Op. 22. Ax returned to the stage to play more Chopin as encore: the Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2.

Ax will repeat Sunday’s Spivey Hall program this Wednesday, March 27 at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of their “Great Artists II” series. He will be followed with additional performances on March 31 in Santa Fe and in Seattle on April 2 before returning to the orchestral circuit as soloist in Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in D Major with the Oregon Symphony and conductor Carlos Kalmar, April 6 – 8.

Ax to return to Atlanta in late November to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in late November. ■

(*Note: The piano was mis-identified in the original post as “Robert.” The author requested a fact-check from Spivey Hall, and that has since been corrected to “Clara.” Spivey Hall’s two Hamburg Steonways are respectively known as “Clara” and “Robert” in honor of Clara and Robert Schumann.)

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