Notes and Editorial Reviews
Precision, finesse, tonal and dynamic colouring and much else too add up to virtuosity of the Michelangeli or Pollini class here.
In case after fifteen months or so anyone may have forgotten, let me start by reminding readers that Emanuel Ax (flow in his twentyseventh year) won the first Artur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Israel in September 1974. Of Polish extraction, he Went with his family to live in Canada in 1959, and did the vital part of his studying with Mieczyslaw Munz, a Polish pianist on the staff of the Juilhard School in New York. The sleeve-note tells us that he began to attract attention at contests in Warsaw in 1970, Lisbon in 1971 and Belgium in 1972. But it was not till Tel Aviv in
1974 that he finally emerged triumphant.
When I first started to play Chopin's B minor Sonata I must confess I was a little surprised that it did not spring off the record with more vitality and intensity. But with repeated hearings, the more I began to appreciate Ax's refusal to play for effect, his total rejection of all self-conscious searchings for new points of emphasis. In the first movement he neither over-drives the first subject nor swoons over the second (but could his cantilena be a little more luminous and magical here?). The whole movement has spaciousness and flexibility emphasising Chopin's romantic, fantasia-like approach to sonata form. For the Scherzo Ax has the right delicacy of touch; there is no trace of steeliness in his brilliance. The Largo is maturely reflective. Ax plays it as if he were "recollecting emotion in tranquillity" rather than making an on-the-spot avowal. The last two chords, incidentally, are very beautifully balanced. I was disappointed at his quiet start to the finale's arresting introduction. Sometimes, too, I wondered if his rhythm was taut enough as the argument unfolds. But the semiquaver episodes are delightfully fleet, and the main theme itself returns each time with cumulative might. The ending is a real victory. I don't think the performance is helped by the rather close, boxy recording. I can also imagine that on the concert platform, as opposed, to in the studio, Ax's whole approach to the Sonata might be more spontaneous, more tingling, with the music's nerve-ends more exposed. But for its mellowness and poise, its balanced musicianship, the performance is still most impressive.
The second side of the disc is designed to show him off as a pianist pure and simple. Since Liszt wrote such a vast amount of original music, I can't imagine what prompted Ax to include four un-Schubertian Schubert transcriptions, though his sonority in all of them is a joy. So is his scintillating fingerwork in Gnomenreigen. The outstanding performance of the whole record for me is nevertheless the A minor Paganini Etude. Precision, finesse, tonal and dynamic colouring and much else too add up to virtuosity of the Michelangeli or Pollini class here.
-- Gramophone [12/1975, reviewing the original LP release]
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