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February 1, 2010

Emanuel Ax salutes bicentennial of Chopin, Schumann in Shriver Hall recital

One of the most anticipated events on the local music calendar was Sunday's recital by Emanuel Ax for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, his first appearance there in more than 30 years. I'd like to be able to report on the whole program, but I was stuck on Grammy watch at the Sun that day, waiting for word about Baltimore's representation among the assorted nominees -- the BSO (for its Bernstein "Mass" release) and the children's band Milkshake.

Alas, neither won, which was bad news for them, and good news for me -- it meant that there was no story to write and I had a decent chance to hear at least some of Ax's playing.

By the time I got to Shriver, intermission was starting. Rats. But there still were some great items left in this program devoted to 2010's bicentennial boys, Schumann and Chopin, and the pianist had plenty of great music-making left, too.

The two composers had a good deal in common -- relatively short lives, assorted ailments (physical and/or mental). And, musically speaking, an ability to take the piano into a whole new realm of color and expressive range, much of it packed into short forms. Most of the individual movements of, say, the "Fantasiestucke," Op. 12, by Schumann are only about three minutes long; Chopin's four Mazurkas, Op. 41, are that brief or briefer. But what worlds of poetry and feeling each creative burst opens up.

It's possible to find even more nuances in the

"Fantasiestucke" than Ax did, but he did marvelous things nonetheless, offering as much formidable technique as poetic sensitivity. I especially enjoyed the subtler passages. "Des Abends" floated on a gossamer tone; "Warum" sang out wistfully; the last chords of "Ende von Lied" were articulated with exquisite timing and finesse, each one reaching a lower, yet more compelling, pianissimo.

Those Mazurkas emerged a little less interestingly, though with unerring, patrician taste. Ax's affinity for the music of his fellow Pole shone through more vividly in his account of the "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise." In less imaginative hands, both parts of this score can sound ever so slightly repetitive (dare I say tedious?), but Ax used delectable rhythmic freedom and a wide array of tone coloring to create an arresting performance. The surge of power at the end proved particularly effective. 

And the A minor Waltz, Op. 34, No. 2, played as an encore, was beautifully delivered with what you might call a noble wistfulness.

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:05 AM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

I realize the Sun is doing its best in tough times for newspapers, but I think it is a real shame that we only get a report on only half of the concert because of Grammy coverage. The first half of the concert was great in my opinion, but alas, I cannot offer an expert opinion on it. I can say that this was the most enjoyable piano recital that I've seen at Shriver Hall in years.

I don't want to make you feel bad, but it is unfortunate that you missed Schumann's Fantasy, Op. 17, which for me was the highlight of the program. (But then I've always found Schumann's piano works more moving than Chopin's.) I appreciated that Ax did not raise his hands from the keyboard at the end of the second movement. This is because the second movement ends with what sounds like a finale, and, in the past, I've heard audiences who are unaware that there is a third movement applaud. The slow third movement of the Fantasy is as beautiful and transcendental as anything written for piano.

I was at the Ax concert Sunday. Yes we had a program and I read it. But I was curious as to why EA didn't even speak a word to the audience? Is that his style or was it because he had no microphone. To me the concert wasn't "a happening" like I thought it would be.

The hard-to-break tradition of classical music concerts is for the music to do all the talking. Some artists have certainly broken that practice (especially conductors), but others -- still the vast majority, I'd say -- are most comfortable saying nothing. When it comes to encores, even some of the silent ones will open up, just to announce the selection, but even that, as you saw, is not a sure thing. TIM

Tim, don't feel so bad. You actually caught the best half.
I was distracted and disappointed that the piano was out of tune!! I was relieved to see the technician come out immediately at intermission-- just in time for the jewel-like tones of the Andante Spianato.

Thanks. I'm feeling better. (I'm quite used to people telling me that any concert I missed was the greatest performance in the history of Western civilization, and any half of a concert I missed the greatest performance in at least a century. Somehow, I manage to go on with life, regardless.) TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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