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CD Review


Emanuel Ax, piano
Sony Classical 88765-42086-2 74m
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Meaty.

Arnold Schoenberg argued for the variation principle as the foundation of musical art, and variation form always struck me as central to Beethoven's composition, beyond the actual variations he wrote. After all, you can view the Fifth Symphony's opening movement and scherzo as monumental variations on the essentially one simple idea (da-da-da-DUM).

The variation form began very simply: a set of compositions of differing character linked by the same theme. The basic template was usually an uncomplicated song or aria, whose structural phrasing would be followed in each section -- sort of like straight-ahead jazz choruses. This became known as the aria variée. Often such pieces would aim to show off a player's technique and would grow successively more ornate (and faster) to set up a standing ovation at the end. J.S. Bach was one of the first to break this mold, to stretch the template into new directions, especially with the Goldberg Variations, turning a showpiece into a vehicle for musical contemplation. Nevertheless, the older model persists into the present. All the pieces here I find both wonderful and a little squirrely, although each is squirrely in its own way.

Beethoven wrote both sorts of variations. Emanuel Ax puts the "Eroica" Variations among his favorites, and I can't disagree. More substantial than the "Kakadus" and less monumental than the Diabellis, they show Beethoven in his "unbuttoned" manner, without sacrificing any compositional smarts. They take what had to have been a favorite theme of the composer, since he used it in at least three other works I can think of: the finale to the Third Symphony, the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, and one of the contredanses. In the ballet, the music grows from a skeletal bass line to increasing complication, depicting Prometheus's creating humankind from unpromising material. Beethoven brings to the variation the dramatic impulse of the sonata. He concerns himself with the overall shape of the work, beyond both the individual variation and the simple revving up of an audience. Instead of inexorably increasing tension, we get structures with points of intensity and relaxation as well.

Beethoven from the very beginning throws a series of curves. He gives us the bass of the theme and three variations on it before he states the theme itself. By the time it enters, it sounds like another countermelody, although Beethoven quickly establishes its primacy. The early variations will cause to rise the eyebrows of those familiar with the variation genre. The usual strategy moves from the relatively unadorned to the ornate. Beethoven begins with a lot of finger-flash. The listener may well wonder whether the composer's shot his wad. The early variations also adhere closely to the theme's structure. These include a sprightly variation, a close canon. At Variation 8, Beethoven begins to pull and press the theme – rhythm, phrasing, and harmony – until we get to Variation 15, less a variation than an adagio fantasia on the basic elements of the theme. Indeed, it has the heft of some of the Diabellis, decades ahead. A fugue with the theme bass as its subject begins. The theme itself appears as a fugal episode. At this point, you would expect a glorious contrapuntal conclusion, but Beethoven shifts gears. An andante section gives us two more variations of the theme plus a brief coda, also based on the theme. We have covered a long distance from the aria variée.

People usually regard Haydn as a comfortably avuncular composer, but he's really more subversive than that. Unusually, his Variations in f vary not one, but two themes – one in f minor, the other in F major, and of different characters – a so-called double variation set, of which Haydn's is one of the first. The overall structure does not exhibit the eccentricity of Beethoven's. However, within each variation, he generally throws in, at unexpected moments, some crazy little fillip, a bit like an Art Tatum run. Furthermore, one of the themes contains an unusual modulation, a G-flat chord within the context of f minor. You don't need to be a theory wonk to hear this. Haydn makes it a noticeable point of drama, much as Beethoven was to do with Neapolitan harmonies in some of his Sturm und Drang piano sonatas.

With the Schumann Symphonic Études, we step into a mare's nest. First, we must ask which score. Schumann himself cut several numbers out of the score. An 1852 cut two more numbers. In 1890, Brahms inserted five castoffs. Ax uses the 1837 version, plus three of the numbers Brahms restored.

Schumann originally conceived the score as a set of virtuosic études that varied a theme, but in typical fashion composed some études not variations at all, as well as some variations not études. Furthermore, he even added an étude based on another theme, from a Marschner opera on Scott's Ivanhoe. Nevertheless, the architecture of the piece remains clear, although the narrative is elusive. That is, you can discern what Schumann does more easily than why he does it. Of course, some of the problem may stem from Ax's own ordering of the insertions. However, given Schumann's own back-and-forth over which individual movements to include, perhaps the overall arc of the score did not lie foremost in his mind. Like much of Schumann, it comes across as a set of character-pieces, rather than as an argument of variations. One has only to compare it with the Diabellis or the Brahms Haydn Variations to spot its unique character. For me, listening to the études is like reading a group of tales by Hoffmann, one piquancy or grotesquerie after another.

I've always liked Ax's playing. I think him one of the great Haydn players and highly recommend his sonatas. He gets both Haydn's whims and his depth. The Beethoven is straightforward, and all to the good. We seem to hear Beethoven rather than Ax. However, the Schumann really stands out. This is not an easy piece to bring off. Even though it does require a virtuoso, it doesn't evoke an incredulous Wow like Chopin or Liszt. Ax seems to give us Schumann's intellect, imagination, and fancy. I do complain about the recording itself, which seems so closely miked that one loses the subtleties of Ax's playing: everything seems at practically the same dynamic level. I compare this sound to that of Ax's live concerts, where he proves himself a master of dynamic shading. However, I recommend this CD on the basis of Ax's musicianship alone.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz