First Class Ax…writes Fraser Beath McEwing

June 12, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Polish /Canadian pianist, Emanuel Ax is in Australia doing what very few pianists would be game to do: play all five Beethoven piano concertos in the space of nine days.

Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax

His opening Sydney Opera House concert, with the Sydney Symphony under David Robertson, took place yesterday afternoon (12 June) when Ax effortlessly dispatched numbers one and two as part of the Metro Series. Three and four will begin on 16 June while number five, The Emperor, will be heard from 20 June. What makes these performances so special is that Ax is one of the world’s leading interpreters of Beethoven’s piano works, of which the five concertos are arguably the crown.

The concert began with Concert Music for Strings and Brass by Hindemith. This relatively unfamiliar orchestral work had its attractive moments but unless you are a Hindemith enthusiast, it acted more as a feather ruffler for upcoming smoothing and settling by Beethoven. However, it should be said that the combination of an augmented brass section and strings did produce interesting sounds, if sometimes strident. I’ve always admired the SSO’s brass and this gave it a chance to show what it could do in various exposed combinations.

For the record, Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963) was something of musical genius, having learned to play virtually every instrument in the orchestra so that he would better understood their strengths and limitations in his role as a composer. In the 1930s he was considered Germany’s leading living composer and, by the age of 35, his output had reached opus 50.

But the near capacity concert hall crowd had come to hear Manny play Beethoven. White haired and avuncular, he is a picture of modesty and friendliness as he appears from the wings. He sits not on the standard issue wind-up dimple padded stool, but a stout four legged metal chair which, I suspect, he brings with him. Another Canadian, the late Glenn Gould, did something similar, except that his chair was wooden and as it deteriorated with age and lost its seat, he sat stoically on the frame.

I ran out of superlatives early in the first concerto. Ax is not a flashy virtuoso. Rather he devotes himself to producing whole-score music. You are listening intimately to Beethoven when he plays. It seems that every note is considered in context, rather than to prove that he has flying fingers. That said, he is a master technician. In the cadenza towards the end of the second concerto, the audience was treated to a solo performance of grand proportions, remembering that both the first and second concertos (although not written in that order) were for the young Beethoven to show off his considerable powers as a pianist. They therefore place the piano part in a dominant position, with many passages played while the orchestra takes a break and becomes the audience.

Part of the success of these two concerto performances came obviously from a close musical brotherhood between soloist Ax and conductor Robertson. In one memorable moment in the first concerto, when piano and orchestra had to hit a big chord together after a rest, conductor and pianist smiled a high five to each other when they hit the bullseye. Full marks to David Robertson for tailoring the orchestral sound to blend with the soloist. The result lifted the music beyond the combative norm of the concerto form into an integrated, polished performance.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.



One Response to “First Class Ax…writes Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. King Billy says:

    What a wonderful and enlightening review. You really make most of the usual suspects seem second rate.

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