Music review: Emanuel Ax at Strathmore

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; C03

Emanuel Ax, the pianist, exudes an aura of robust health. It's not just his ruddy and jovial face, or springy hair, increasingly close-cropped and increasingly gray with the years (he's 61). It's also -- perhaps more than anything else -- his playing. It has a spring to its step. It feels solid and good-humored and assured. There's no vestige of the neurotic artist about Ax. When he performs -- as he did on Wednesday night at Strathmore, courtesy of WPAS -- you're in good hands.

This was a good approach for Schubert who, in his sunniest and most virtuosic mode, was featured on the first half of the program. First came the four late impromptus of D. 935, published posthumously, spinning their themes into long graceful chains of notes looping across the keyboard like Italian opera arias. The fourth and final one, in F minor, is a crisp dance based on slightly off-kilter three-note patterns; Ax gave it an extra springiness by hitting each note exactly at the center of the beat.

There followed the Sonata in A, D. 664, even sunnier, with a tinge of Mozartean freshness, though its sunny opening theme mellowed gradually by its return toward the end of the movement, aged into something slightly softer, slightly darker to set the stage for the more somber second movement. The third movement was all sunshine again, and though Ax's left hand briefly grew almost violent as it beat out the rhythms to which the right hand danced, the pianist excelled at the end, not least through a sequence of chords that managed to retain all of their springiness and energy even though they were played so quietly as to be nearly invisible.

The second half was devoted to Chopin. A good pairing: Both composers are lyrical masters of the piano working in similar periods. And an interesting contrast for Ax's performance. Where his openness and sheer ability helped the Schubert to singing artlessness , it proved, in Chopin, less effective. The Barcarolle in F-sharp and the B-flat minor Scherzo, with their outbursts of passion, both grew muddy, the contours of their climaxes blurred by the pedal. Most notable, though, was that Ax wasn't quite neurotic enough. In the three Op. 59 mazurkas, and the two Op. 27 nocturnes that followed, he played accurately; he played sensitively; but the music didn't ever quite melt. It was almost too robust for its own good. He certainly threw himself into it, to the point of losing the quality of precision that had marked the opening half. And he certainly played well. If it didn't quite hit the sweet spot, it certainly hit a lot of good ones, and he acknowledged the happy applause with Schumann's "Des Abends" from the Fantasiest├╝cke, rapid and lissome, and then Chopin's A-flat Waltz, Op. 34, No. 1, as two engaging if slightly sloppy encores.

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