Wednesday, May 14, 2014

At the Schrott Center, Emanuel Ax delves into Brahms, complete with contemporary homages

Johannes Brahms' services to music in maintaining the viability of traditional forms into the late 19th century center conspicuously on works for solo piano. His achievement there still engages major keyboard talents, as was demonstrated by Emanuel Ax's recital in the "Grand Encounters" series of the American Pianists Association Tuesday night at Butler University's Schrott Center.

Emanuel Ax celebrated Brahms here.
In notes to his 1991 recording of Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24, Ax pointed up contemporary respect for Brahms' significance from no less a music-of-the-future avatar than Richard Wagner, who said the linked pieces on the 18th-century theme "show what may still be done with the old forms, provided that someone appears who knows how to treat them."

Comparing the 23-year-old recording with Ax's approach now to the Brahms-Handel risks falling into cliches about the contrast between youthful bravado and elder-statesman perspective. Then again, he was in early middle age by then and had more than 15 years of international prominence behind him.

Yet there was an old-master aura to the performance here. Ax's interpretation before a packed house  began with a gentler statement of the "Aria," and throughout the 25 variations, the recitalist exhibited a considered gravity of expression.

The lighter variations were by no means shellacked with heaviness; in fact, contrasts between variations were more pronounced, if memory serves, than in Ax's 1991 recording. But even the blithely delicate "Musette" variation (No. 22) had a slight poignancy.

From there, the mounting excitement and grandeur of the music built up, yet Ax wisely avoided a steam-roller effect in the fugue. The expressive spectrum was wide, adding a delicious tension. The peroration, with its chiming high octaves, was stunning, and Ax broadened the tempo judiciously at the end. The enraptured ovation that followed elicited an encore: Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 4.

In "The Literature of the Piano," Ernest Hutcheson concisely describes Brahms' compositional progress as "a subjugation of temperament to craftsmanship." The two maintain a lofty balance in Opus 24. The Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, op. 2, sits squarely on the temperament side of the spectrum. The formal gift isn't hidden, but it is subject to an overflow of powerful feeling, a display of resources bearing the strong influence of Schumann and Beethoven.

In the opening movement, Ax's feeling for the paragraphing in Brahms' rhetoric was astute and clarifying. The balance of melody and accompaniment was both sweet and urgent in the slow movement, its lyrical material in the piano's lower middle range evoking the graceful phrasing of a master lieder singer like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

In the exuberant Scherzo, we are in Schumann territory, in his "a-hunting we will go" mode. I liked Ax's crisp articulation and rhythmic exuberance here.

In the fourth movement, there's a lot of Big Statement grandeur. Brahms attributed his delay in producing a symphony to the intimidation of hearing the tread of the giant Beethoven behind him. In this sonata finale, Beethoven is practically stepping on the young composer's heels — those trills, those thundering sequences, the Fate-knocking-at-the-door motif of the Fifth Symphony! The textural variety is almost bewildering, the harmonic logic hard to follow.

As far as that last quality goes,  Brahms had gained much more in craftsmanship by the time he wrote the assured, well-grounded Rhapsodie that concludes Klavierstuecke, op. 119. Ax ended the first half with those four pieces, interspersed with the three parts of Brett Dean's "Hommage a Brahms."

This is an effective contemporary tribute, taking off from the refinement of late Brahms to evoke "Wings of Angels" in two "flappings," with diaphanous chords and smoothly spun-out figuration. The middle Dean tribute vividly brought forward the raucous, disturbing atmosphere of the Hamburg dives where the teenage Brahms entertained sailors and their doxies. Small wonder that the resultant turmoil stirred up in the impressionable, beardless lad had to emerge untamed in those early sonatas.

The other new work on the program written to salute Brahms was Missy Mazzoli's "Bolts of Loving Thunder," an arpeggio-based study with relentless cross-hand requirements. A middle section features more stolid sonorities with great gaps in register. To no great purpose, the cross-hand stuff at rippling tempos seemed excessive, as the pianist must periodically strike the treble note at a variety of dynamic levels, not all of them related to what else is going on. The piece made an effective pygmy companion on the recital's second half to the Brahms-Handel, but I'm not sure I want to hear it again.