BEETHOVEN Variations and Fugue in Eb, Op. 35, “Eroica.” HAYDN Variations in f, Hob XVII:6. SCHUMANN Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 • Emmanuel Ax (pn) • SONY 88765 42086 2 (73:47)
The variation medium is a fascinating one by which to judge a composer. Never is the sense of compositionalRead more exploration and freedom more discernible than in this genre. But “variation form” in itself does not truly exist, as the structure of any set of variations is dependent on the composer and his message, each work seeking out its own path. This recital program is good proof of that. All of the compositions here are novel in how the composer responds to the genre—some variations are improvisatory in nature, others highly organized and contrapuntal; some simple and melodic, others virtuosic and rhythmically complex; some sets based on the ornamentation of a bass progression, others constructed, through the elaboration of contrasting sections—the so-called “double-variation” format. Perhaps the most important aspect of each of these works is the composer’s personality.
Beethoven proclaimed his op. 35 (along with his op. 34) to be “worked out in a completely new manner.” And when one analyzes the structure of this work one can only conclude that they are indeed novel. When else has a composer chosen to base his variations not only on a bass line, but also on a theme that enters only after that bass line has been stated and fully decorated in three completely different ways? Other than their novel structure, the pieces provide an excellent glimpse at the composer’s “heroic” style—yes, they are indeed the “Eroica” Variations! But Ax does not always see this grand character in them; more often than not, he reveals a much lighter side. That is not always welcome, but where Ax lacks certain majestic qualities, he makes up for their absence with others. His sense of exploration and discovery is especially welcome. The aforementioned opening of the work is particularly successful in this performance. Ax creates a sense of mystery here by musically asking all of the right questions: When will the piece actually take off? To what extent are we witnessing right before our ears the composer in the compositional, or is that the improvisational, process? Ax also shines in the great Largo that begins in Eb and ends in G, the magnificent 15th variation. Here the pianist chooses a rhapsodic rather than virtuosic approach, a down-to-earth rather than ethereal one. The pianist’s fugue is more playful in character than energetic and at times one wishes for grander climaxes, not just at the end of the work with its two crashing chords, but also in key dramatic moments: The section in which the fugue proper dissipates into a series of seventh chords, making way for the reintroduction of the theme, is rather timid in effect here (compare this to Glenn Gould’s DVD performance on Sony for a truly riveting performance).
The Haydn is especially good. It is markedly different than other interpretations: Again Ax shies away from the dramatic aspects of this work in favor of more subdued ones. The Gb-chord which appears in a piece written in F Minor, over which Ax makes a fuss in his program notes, is approached in a nonchalant manner. It seems like everyday material here. But is that the point? Is he approaching this music more rationally than emotionally, as he believes an 18th-century musician would? Perhaps. There are too many fine details in this performance, however, to disagree wholeheartedly: the characterization of the mysterious and quirky minor-tinged dotted figures which quietly prance up and down the keyboard bouncing from the higher registers to the lowest ones; the fabulously virtuosic and climactic scalar runs near the end of the work; the ravishingly beautiful arpeggiated chords near the beginning of the F-Major sections. All of the details here alone are worth the price of admission.
The recital ends with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Just listening to the work it is obvious that this is the newest addition to the pianist’s repertoire, so engaged, so free is he when he plays it. There is a certain Mendelssohnian grace to his approach which seems to define the character of the opening variations—in Ax’s hands not only does the third etude (the one with a prominent staccato accompaniment in the treble registers) feed off the spirit of this composer but also the fifth etude. Had the Variations sérieuses, op. 54, not been written some years later (the Symphonic Etudes in 1834/5, Mendelssohn’s set in 1841), one would swear that Schumann was inspired by that composition here. Ax includes only three of the five later published variations: He is at his best in them. What about them especially mark his playing? I can’t say, but whatever it is he is far more impassioned in them than in the former ones. Are they more Schumannian in his mind? Seemingly so. A pity he didn’t include the other two.
Sadly—probably due to constraints of timing—though Ax also recorded the Copland Piano Variations, they did not make it on to the current disc. That composition is, however, included in the purchase price of the online digital download of this recording. It would be nice if Sony included a link to the download of that track with the purchase of the CD here, but as of now that is merely my own suggestion. Of the three compositions on this set the one I enjoyed the most was the Schumann. Ax plays with conviction and spontaneity; his lighter approach is appealing. Too often the piece feels heavy and muddled (Is this the “symphonic” quality that some pianists seek out?). Though these recordings wouldn’t be my top choice for this repertoire—those would be Gould’s aforementioned “Eroica” Variations on DVD, Brendel’s Haydn, and Cortot’s Schumann—Ax’s approach is fascinating enough in how they make one rethink the standards. And isn’t that one of the hallmarks of a good recording?
must haveJune 15, 2013By mike b. (burnaby, British Columbia)See All My Reviews"Ax has always been my favorite Haydn pianist,his phrasing makes the music most interesting and enjoyable. The Beethovan variations are the best I ever heard. Demonstration quality!"Report Abuse