Emanuel Ax brings warmth to a chilly afternoon

Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

For an impressive number of classical music lovers, it was the equivalent of hunkering down in front of a roaring fireplace.

Despite wind chills that hovered in below-zero territory Sunday afternoon, a large crowd descended on Symphony Center to hear pianist Emanuel Ax in a recital of music by Chopin and Schumann.

This is an important anniversary for both men who were born within four months of each other in 1810. Masters of melodic invention, they are among classical music’s most beloved composers.

But Sunday’s remarkably quiet, attentive audience knew that Ax would give them much more than a predictable anniversary-year roundup of each composer’s greatest hits. A frequent visitor to Chicago, Ax is a musician who likes to challenge himself. His interests range from icons of the standard repertoire to brand-new pieces by contemporary composers such as John Adams.

Needless to say, he possesses the technical virtuosity that is standard equipment for today’s globe-trotting pianists. But he also brings mature intelligence and sensitivity to everything he plays. (In honor of the Chopin-Schumann bicentennials he has joined with two orchestras and three major international concert halls to commission pieces by John Adams, Peter Lieberson and Osvaldo Golijov that he will perform with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

Sunday’s concert included Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy, A-flat Major, Op. 61; six mazurkas and the Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante, E-flat Major, Op. 22. The Schumann works were the C Major Fantasy, Op. 17, and Phantasiestücke, Op. 12.

Chopin and Schumann rode the crest of the 19th century’s Romantic era. Beethoven had introduced an element of unpredictable abandon into the basic structures of classical music, and Chopin and Schumann pushed those boundaries ever further. Both dared to work extensively in short forms, and they forsook the symmetries of classical sonata form for something much more free and loose.

All of which can encourage self-indulgent, overly sentimental performances. Schumann poured his longing for his beloved, temporarily unattainable, Clara Wieck into his C Major Fantasy. A young man living in Paris, Chopin evoked his Polish homeland in his mazurkas and polonaises. But both were superb craftsmen, expressing their emotions in elegantly colored, meticulously structured works.

Ax responded in kind. He seemed to have burrowed inside each composer’s frequently feverish brain. There was an internal logic to every work on the program, which made each composer’s capricious mood changes seem utterly understandable. Like dreamers in a deep sleep, we weren’t jarred by the abrupt shifts between stern, commanding chords in Chopin’s A-flat Major Polonaise-Fantasy and its stretches of amiable, unperturbed song. The contrast of austere hymn tunes and martial high spirits in Schumann’s C Major Fantasy made perfect sense. Ax performed each work with clearly etched phrasing and fluent lyricism. The concert which ran more than two hours, ended with a warmly intimate Chopin Waltz in A minor.

Ax will be back in Chicago in the spring, observing Chopin’s bicentennial with performances of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto with the CSO led by Sir Mark Elder April 8-10.

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