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Emanuel Ax Hits His Groove on Four Sets of Variations

01.27.13
Emanuel Ax
WQXR

Emanuel Ax has never been the flashiest pianist on the scene, prone to showy pyrotechnics or histrionic gestures. He sticks to what he does best, which are the structured, meaty works of the Austro-Germanic tradition, with occasional forays into American or Russian-Polish repertoire. He's firmly in his element on "Variations," a new recording featuring sets of variations by Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and Copland.

As Ax notes in the album's liner notes, pianists tend to obsess over the sonata form at the expensive of other great repertoire. "I think people like Beethoven, Haydn, and Schumann show what great compositional virtuosos they are in these pieces," he writes of the variations form.

Beethoven often used this form for some of his most far-reaching ideas. Ax leads off the collection with the under-performed "Eroica" Variations, bringing out their raucous humor, as well as their introspective moments.

The Haydn Variations in F minor are a more decorous (yet often charming) creation and Ax lays them out with clarity and firmness. Schumann's Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 represent the pinnacle of the composer's piano technique and take the variations concept the farthest; at times we only get hints of the original melody. Included on the digital download release is a bonus track of Aaron Copland's Piano Variations. This 10-minute set represents modernist rather than cowboy Copland, and it's well worth getting to know.