A different Ax offers same great moments

Emanuel Ax
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Is there a more comfortable presence than Emanuel Ax? A frequent visitor to Philadelphia's concert halls, the 58-year-old pianist always transcends nonmusical obstacles - snowstorms, summer heat, antiseptic sound systems - with his velvet legato and amiable presence. Never, in my experience, has he phoned in a performance. But without a concert to salvage and with conditions ideal (Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, thanks to Philadelphia Chamber Music Society) and a program of his choosing, a different Ax emerged Tuesday. He was on so many edges that when he reverted to his nice old self for an encore, you wished he hadn't.

Ax is an original. He doesn't allow his Chopin-esque manner to become a one-size-fits-all approach. Where other pianists want to be grand and profound with slow tempos and big, sloshy sonorities, Ax goes in the opposite direction with escalating speed and crispness. The more he increases tension, the more intently you listen - and perceive the profundity. In Schumann's Papillons (Op. 2), where melodies from two different worlds are sounding simultaneously, other pianists tend to pedal generously, suggesting those two worlds are distant but adjacent mountainsides. Ax put them in close, sweaty proximity. Charles Ives would have loved it.

In other great moments, performance heat was fused with intelligent strategy. Even the greatest pianists can't keep Schumann's Fantasy in C, with all its unguarded, openhearted rhapsody, from being a letdown after the first movement. Ax left no room for that. Movements jumped on each other's backs without pause and with such emphatic concentration that your brain hadn't time to ask if the last two movements measured up to the first.

The velvet legato was kept in his back pocket for a pair of Beethoven sonatas, Op. 2 (No. 2) and Op. 57, "Appassionata." But the coloristic abilities that create this trademark sonority joined forces with Ax's equally keen ability to clearly show the audience how the composer got from one stunning event to another: Unusually firm pianissimos and even pregnant silences became arresting, effective transitional techniques. In the "Appassionata," the two chords that succinctly usher in the final movement had such a different timbre, you could barely believe they came from the same instrument - this, while maintaining a sonic kinship that convinced you they belonged in the same piece. Beethoven's volatility became so apparent that Ax narrowly avoided train wrecks, taking the music's rage to the verge of chaos - with great effect. He played the final movement not as a virtuoso romp that happens to be in a minor key, but as a furious journey to hell.

Chopin's Waltz in A minor, which is core repertoire for Ax, was the technically sure but emotionally absent encore. After that kind of "Appassionata," how can you be charming when the earth has been scorched?