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Beethoven: Eroica Variations; Haydn: Variations in F minor; Schumann: Symphonic Studies – review

04.03.13
Emanuel Ax
The Guardian

Andrew Clements

Emanuel Ax (piano) (Sony Classical)

4 out of 5 stars

Although these three works are among the greatest sets of variations in the piano repertoire, Emanuel Ax's real reason for bringing them together on one disc is, one suspects, simply that they are all favourites of his. There's a wonderful generosity of spirit about the way in which he approaches each of them – an enthusiasm that comes across just as clearly in the sleeve notes that he contributes, too.

Ax's playing is always marvellously articulate and totally unfussy. Nothing is done for effect or to draw attention to the player rather than to what he is playing; though his range of touch and keyboard colour is consummately wide, it is never used cosmetically. The imposing way in which Ax begins the Eroica Variations identifies the unprecedented ambition of the music he presents, while the sprung energy with which each variation's rhythmic details are then articulated, and the clarity he brings to the most dashingly virtuoso passages and climactic fugue make everything boldly immediate. There's no mistaking the scale of this music or the way it engages every aspect of Ax's musical intelligence.

He presents the Beethoven as public statement, but Ax is equally capable of judging the perfect, intimate scale for Haydn's F minor Variations. His performance savours all of the work's harmonic subtleties, major-minor contrasts and excursions to remote keys. He manages to honour the work's 18th-century classical background as well as bringing out its uncanny anticipations of later composers, before launching into the Schumann with infectious gusto. Ax includes three of the five discarded variations Brahms restored to an appendix in his edition of the Symphonic Studies published after Schumann's death, because, Ax says, he felt that they were too beautiful to leave out, and every bar that he plays of this work has that affectionate feel about it. It's such a warm-hearted performance that you hardly notice the keenly analytical musical mind that's directing it so unswervingly.