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Music Review

Beethoven's music speaks for itself through Emanuel Ax's hands

The pianist's brand of virtuosity - command rather than flash - was manifested throughout his recital at Jordan Hall. The pianist's brand of virtuosity - command rather than flash - was manifested throughout his recital at Jordan Hall. (J. Henry Fair)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2007

You need a lot of technique to take Ludwig van Beethoven at his word. On Sunday afternoon, pianist Emanuel Ax tackled the familiar yet formidable "Waldstein" Sonata in C Major (Op. 53), and he achieved the not inconsiderable feat of letting the music speak for itself, in all its stubborn, maddening glory.

The dense, obsessive passagework of the first movement had clarity and bite; the bass tremolo leading into the coda was a precise avalanche. Steady, deliberate austerity marked the slow movement, with eloquent pauses juxtaposed against the transfixed, pedal-blurred cantabile line that opened the closing rondo. The muscular grandeur of the finale was paced like a thoroughbred, each dramatic crest building on the last.

Ax's brand of virtuosity - command rather than flash - was manifested throughout his recital at Jordan Hall, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Rhythms were flexible, but with authority and momentum; accumulations of notes were shaded into pellucid clarity, each pitch ringing with purpose, even amidst thick chords or contrapuntal traffic. To seem simply a conduit for the music, as Ax did, demonstrated a deep and seamless artistry.

Ax opened with early Beethoven, the Sonata in A Major (Op. 2, No. 2). The young Beethoven was in aural love with the piano's multiple sonic personalities. Themes bounce from high to low, accompaniments are embroidered in a multitude of patterns, scintillating ornamentation becomes a resonant end in itself. Ax did justice to the full range. He started out by pointing up each contrast in dynamics and articulation: Beethoven the awkward guest, excitable, moody, and disdaining small talk. As the piece went on, he shifted the dichotomies from moment-by-moment to section-by-section, the temperamental rhetoric coalescing into confident sculpture.

In between the sonatas was music by Robert Schumann, whose mercurial, protean forms were well-served by Ax's direct, robust phrasing: He immediately found the core of each new mood, making vibrant and entrancing what, in lesser hands, could be merely attention-deficient.

Ax used a near-continuous but unobtrusive rubato to stitch the variegated sections of the Op. 20 "Humoreske" into a convincing whole that still gave free rein to Schumann's unorthodox whim. With drive and lilt, Ax emphasized the choreography in the masked-ball snapshots of the Op. 2 "Papillons." The dancers returned for an encore, Frédéric Chopin's Waltz in A Minor (Op. 34, No. 2). Like the rest of the program, one felt that this simply was how the music should go.

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