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Pianist Emanuel Ax shines in Cleveland Orchestra program at Blossom

Jahja Ling
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Pianist Emanuel Ax wasn't just the featured guest of the Cleveland Orchestra Saturday night at Blossom Music Center. He was the program's central force, and a gleaming one at that. Seemingly unfazed by the night's exceptional heat and humidity, Ax strode on stage in jacket and vest and delivered superb performances of works by not one but two composers with whom he's been long associated, Mozart and Chopin. Around him were then played lighter, shorter works in a similar spirit.

Up first with Ax was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, a mature score that contains some of the most unabashedly good-natured music in the composer's canon. Where Mozart was cheery, Ax was radiant, the very model of a musical collaborator. Elsewhere, too, though, the pianist, a masterful and widely beloved figure, was fully compelling, shaping the Andante as a cycle of yearning and quiet disappointment. Listening as well as he played, Ax used a bright, crisp tone in the outer movements not only to stand out but also to engage in balanced, tastefully ornamented conversation with the orchestra, led Saturday by Jahja Ling. He also made the most of the acoustics, turning the reverberant nature of Blossom to his advantage with smooth, elegantly tapered phrases and a creative cadenza marked by call-and-response effects. In short, it was Mozart of the highest caliber.

Ax's Chopin wasn't bad, either, a surprise to absolutely no one who's listened to classical music over the last 30 years. Stepping back into the oven after intermission, Ax switched gears and offered a spellbinding account of Chopin's "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante," one of the composer's few works involving orchestra. This time, the focus was more squarely on him, and the pianist once again fulfilled even the highest of expectations. Few scores hold the power to bewitch like this work's first half, with its reams of shimmering musical lacework. With Ax at the keyboard, though, it proved even more enchanting than usual, a seamless, cascading fountain. This he followed with a polonaise every bit as hot as the night itself, a display of blazing vitality and incredible virtuosity. May Ax return, and more frequently.

Ling, completing a busy week in Cleveland that began with Independence Day festivities, rounded out the program with two Viennese overtures and three of Brahms' "Hungarian Dances," in their orchestral versions. Dvorak's "Slavonic Dance" in C Major came as an encore. Though different in many ways, Suppe's "Poet and Peasant" and Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" overtures received the same affectionate treatment: exuberant readings marked by bold lilts and teasing recurrences of their main melodies. Together, they got both halves of the program off to charming starts.

As for the ending, well, that was more fiery than charming. Brahms's first, fifth and sixth dances, the most famous of the bunch, exerted their powers once again via Ling, the orchestra, and the kind of propulsive, driven performances Ax might have given had he been asked to play them on piano.