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A Snowy Celebration of Schumann and Chopin

02.12.10
Emanuel Ax
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

New York music lovers can be an intrepid bunch. Despite Wednesday’s snowstorm, a sizable audience made it to Carnegie Hall for a recital by the estimable pianist Emanuel Ax, the second in a series of three programs celebrating the 200th birthdays of Chopin and Schumann.

In no time Mr. Ax banished thoughts of winter as he played the stately, solemn opening chords of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, an elusive late work, more fantasy than polonaise. Mr. Ax played this haunting music with uncanny dramatic timing and melting sound. During the opening section, as the sound lingered after each statement of the chord motif, a lacy hint of a melodic line trailed slowly up the keyboard with eerie calm.

Eventually the gentle polonaise began, played here with beguiling elusiveness. In this wondrously strange work stretches of dance alternate with harmonically rich musings and bursts of rhapsodic fantasy. From Mr. Ax’s magnificent performance I know that he loves the piece as much as I do.

Fantasy was a recurring theme in this substantive program. Mr. Ax played Schumann’s great Fantasy in C as well as his “Fantasiestucke,” a suite of eight fantasy pieces. “Fantasiestucke” truly is fantastical. To the dreamy lyricism of “Warum?” (“Why?”) Mr. Ax brought a touch of inquisitive urgency. He dispatched the impetuous flights of “Traumes Wirren” (“Dream’s Turmoil”), all whirling runs and turns, with scintillating delicacy.

Despite its title the Fantasy in C may be Schumann’s most ingeniously structured work, a Romantic homage to the Beethoven sonata ideal. The homage comes through explicitly in the ending to the first movement, which quotes a serene melody from Beethoven’s song cycle, “An die ferne Geliebte.” Except for a couple of rough patches Mr. Ax brought brio and exuberance to the formidably difficult second movement, a rousing march.

I was startled by the ending of the reflective third movement. It turned out that Mr. Ax was performing the original, prepublication version of the music, in which the Beethoven theme is recapitulated. I prefer the standard version, in which the Beethoven reference is rendered more special by appearing just once, but it was fascinating to hear Schumann’s original thoughts.

Contrasting three Chopin mazurkas, elegantly played, with the premiere of Three Mazurkas, Op. 27, by the British composer Thomas Adès was a great idea. Mr. Adès, an accomplished pianist, pays tribute to Chopin by writing modern-day, harmonically spiky, rhythmically fractured mazurkas that imaginatively span the keyboard. In the second, he evokes the practice of rubato (in which strict timing is toyed with) by having the left hand play a steady rhythmic figure while the right spins out a spiraling, trill-filled wash of notes.

Mr. Ax ended with a playfully virtuosic and dazzling account of Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise.” Afterward he thanked the audience for turning out and wished everyone a safe trip home. To hasten that trip, he offered just one encore, Chopin’s wistful Waltz in A minor, played with exquisite subtlety.