Ax struck a resoundingly brilliant chord – Doug Bauman

There is a reason why I keep going back again and again to experience the piano concertos with Emanuel Ax as the soloist: simply put, his virtuosic talent, his keen and ardent desire to play the music and to enjoy the orchestra left me impatiently longing for each passage, each phrase, each cadence and eager for more yet hopeful this beautiful concerto would never end. And this concerto number 5 by Beethoven, this keen and sharply struck chord of melody played against the flourishing orchestral embellishments contrasted in temporal position toyed with my introspective mind. The concerto itself is lavish yet contrapuntal, liquid yet precise, classical yet romantic and effervescent in metaphoric scenes which in my mind ranged from waterfalls to the earnest entreaty of love.
The concerto began with Conductor Manfred Honeck quickly sweeping his arms in a lunging motion to signal the intensely evocative beginning of the first movement — and then the piano began, ranging up and down the keyboard in what was the beginning of many similar phrases which to me conjured images of water tinkling over stones. And from that simple beginning the orchestra took over, extending the theme and developing the melody, with sounds distinct to this concerto, yet evoking portions of Beethoven’s symphony number 6. When the piano rejoins, it begins on a journey of building tucks and turns, as if a tennis match between Mr. Ax and the orchestra, back and forth. When he wasn’t playing the keyboard, Mr. Ax would look toward Maestro Honeck with a brimming smile, and swaying to the music personified by the orchestra, invoked an instant infectious smile in my heart. His eyes were alert and aptly attentive to the direction of the conductor, then, returning to the keyboard, would produce a succinct rapturous passage, soft, yet cascading with a deluge of quickly paced notes that just flew. I’d imagine children’s rhymes in one moment, quickly followed by rolling thunder produced by the orchestra into an apex of expanding flourish.
The second movement was slow, with earthly tenderness brimming with gentle wonder. Could I be at a lapse for words with it’s beauty? this movement bears repeating, so I listen again at home while composing this text, and I hear these words in my minds eye:
Once there was a place for thee,
as kind and gentle grace can see,
where grass grows,
and love knows,
all I’ve seen,
wondering what could be.
Listen from 0:20 to 0:52 to hear the piano play the melody with the words I’ve written, then again at about 1:42 the orchestra repeats this melody, this time the piano meanders along the keys in a beautiful counterpoint. Together the two parts of the concerto have intertwined, and the movement concludes by immediately forming the beginning of the 3rd movement with a quiet introduction, like a prelude of reverberation, or an echo of what will come next. And it does, it robust form. By the end of the final movement it was advantage Ax, then game set and match!

2 thoughts on “Ax struck a resoundingly brilliant chord – Doug Bauman”

  • I always find it interesting to know the historical context for a composition. I found the following on the Trib website:
    ”Beethoven wrote his Fifth Piano Concerto, his last, in 1809 when the troops of French Emperor Napoleon occupied Vienna, Austria, where the composer lived all his adult life. Beethoven hated the occupation, but the nickname “Emperor” probably came from concert lore, which held that a French soldier yelled out “Long Live the Emperor” after a performance in Vienna.”

  • According to this Post-gazette post, Ax played as an encore:
    Schumann’s “Des Abends” from “Fantasiestucke,” Op. 12, No. 1.
    Des Abends means The Evenings.
    I liked the encore, but it didn’t overwhelm me, it seemed a bit subdued, but then again something with that title might just be of a slower nature. Maybe I need to expand my horizons 🙂

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