Classical review: Emanuel Ax joins Oregon Symphony in standout performance of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto

Emanuel Ax
The Oregonian

By James McQuillen

Even in a subscription season that has already included stars such as Hilary Hahn and Stephen Hough, Emanuel Ax's performance Saturday night with the Oregon Symphony was a standout, a sterling display of artistry in a monumental work.
The music was Johannes Brahms' Second Piano Concerto, an unusually long, four-movement concerto featuring ingenious construction, vast expressive scope and a radically reimagined relationship between soloist and orchestra. It seemed tailor-made for Ax, who likewise balanced technical prowess and lyrical profundity with ease and grace.
Brahms' rich sonorities and often dense textures demand heroic effort from the soloist -- lots of fingers playing loads of notes at sufficient volume to match the orchestra. It's virtuosic without flash, and so was Ax; his demeanor at the keyboard spoke poetry rather than heroism. Both his jaw-dropping fingerwork, clear and controlled even in the most punishing runs, and his power, which was only occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, seemed effortless.
Not only is Ax one of the leading pianists alive, but he's also one of the most revered chamber musicians, and the strengths that go into great chamber playing were key to Saturday's performance. Guest conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the orchestra in responsive partnership, with a sense of keen listening apparent throughout. More decisive attacks and more robust sound would have helped here and there, but given that the Oregon Symphony had never worked with Villaume previously, it was an impressive collaboration, and I'm tempted to return for Monday's performance.

At times, it achieved the chamber ideal of intensely intimate conversation, most notably in the achingly lovely third-movement duet with Ax and principal cello Nancy Ives. (In a gracious gesture, Ax beckoned Ives to come around from behind the piano and share the riotous ovation at the end of the piece, after which he offered a Schubert Impromptu as a generous encore.)

The major work in the first half was "Color," written 10 years ago by the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie. It was a shrewd programming choice, seizing an opportunity to present a modern work to an audience drawn by Ax and Brahms. The title refers both to a medieval compositional technique underlying the music as well as to the sometimes mysterious instrumental colors Dalbavie achieved through sparse textures and unorthodox doublings. Radiant sonorities in spacious orchestration recalled the work of Dalbavie's mentor, Pierre Boulez.

Reading from the enormous score, Villaume capably led the orchestra through the vast soundscape rich in overtones, which in sections gave the impression of an enormous wine glass played by a finger drawn around its rim.