Notes and Editorial Reviews
Appearing (I believe) for the first time on CD, this is Emanuel Ax’s solo debut album, recorded in 1975, one year after he garnered international attention as first prize winner in the 1974 International Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition. The recording sounds more full-bodied, three-dimensional, and colorful when compared alongside the tinnier, more constricted sonics of my old vinyl copy. The sonic improvement reinforces my initial impression that Ax had an unusually well-regulated and sonorous Steinway at hand. It also reveals the performances in far more flattering and complex light.
Upon this disc’s initial LP release, a highly respected critic felt that Ax’s Chopin B minor sonata missed the work’s larger architecture
and forward impetus. Not so. The finale conveys plenty of dynamism and animated flexibility, with carefully built-up climaxes and plenty of contrapuntal detail to hold interest. The Largo’s shapely right-hand lines are anchored by an understated yet firm left-hand pulse. Tempo relationships between the Scherzo’s outer sections and Trio are perfectly judged, not to mention the fingerwork’s intelligent scintillation and linear awareness. There are moodier, flashier first movements out there in record-collector land, yet Ax’s nuanced transitions, feeling for tone color, and mindful voice leading get right to the heart of the score.
The Schubert/Liszt songs clearly reveal a virtuoso familiar with the originals. Perhaps a little more textural lightness and rhythmic pointing would have turned this highly capable Gnomenreigen into a truly great interpretation. However, the young Ax is both technically and musically attuned to the idiom of Liszt’s A minor Paganini Etude. Note, for instance, his elegant melody/accompaniment separation in the first “three-against-two” variation, the second variation’s well-defined dissonances, his impressive control of the soft octaves, and his ravishing trills. While we may regret that Sony/BMG has not documented the pianist’s solo repertoire more extensively in recent years (he continues to broaden his horizons and to play at absolute full capacity), it’s nice to be reminded that the 25-year-old Emanuel Ax already was an artist of distinction, and destined for a great, well-deserved international career.
-- Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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