Emanuel Ax in Chopin, Schumann

04.27.10
Emanuel Ax
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Emanuel Ax's three-month bicentennial tribute to Chopin and Schumann wound up in Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday night in the most suitable way possible: with the pianist alone at the keyboard, offering a characteristically thoughtful and exciting sampling of the two men's piano music.

I mean no disrespect to Ax's prior collaborators on this project, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Dawn Upshaw. But aside from Schumann's songs, the works on those programs - presented, like this one, as part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series - were somewhat peripheral to the major accomplishments of either composer.

It was the piano that was central to their thinking, almost exclusively so in Chopin's case. And nothing quite illuminates the artistic character of either figure like a solo recital - especially one as vivid and eloquently shaped as Ax's.

What Sunday's program revealed, yet again, is that despite having been born within months of each other in 1810, and despite sharing many musical affinities, Schumann and Chopin had relatively little in common.

Schumann was an omnivorous intellectual, intent on using music to widespread dramatic and poetic ends, while Chopin's imagination never roamed very far beyond what could be achieved with the piano.

Ax made a powerful case for each, but to this taste the Schumann offerings proved much more rewarding. The C-Major Fantasy in particular - Schumann's bold and brilliant attempt to fuse the immediacy of his character sketches with the broad formal solidity of Beethoven's sonatas - got a superb reading, full of fire and sensitivity.

One of Ax's great strengths as a performer, in fact, is his ability to blend tenderness and muscle in a single amalgam, and the first movement of the Fantasy - marked by rippling left-hand accompaniment and a questing but always clear sense of purpose - showed off that gift.

Ax stumbled a time or two in the demanding technical thickets of the central movement, but that hardly slowed the momentum or the dramatic charge of the music. And the finale, with its serene harmonies and limpid rhetoric, sounded especially lovely.

That movement - along with the "Fantasy Pieces," Op. 12, which got a brisk and evocative reading after intermission - focused on those parts of Schumann's music that seem closer than others to Chopin's quasi-improvisatory vein. Ax mined it more directly in the "Polonaise-fantaisie" in A-Flat, Op. 61, and a set of three Mazurkas, as well as a gorgeously played encore of the Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1.

But before that, Ax concluded his regular program in a more extroverted strain, with a bravura account of Chopin's "Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise," Op. 22. It's a rare pianist who can uncover the rhythmic vivacity and polish in this potentially clattery showpiece, but Ax pulled it off.

As an added treat, the program included a work newly commissioned for the occasion from the English composer and pianist Thomas Adès. His Three Mazurkas form an overt and loving tribute to Chopin - particularly the first, which mimics some of the old master's trademark gestures but with different notes.