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CD Review

Variations

Sony 42086
Emanuel Ax, piano
Sony Classical 88765-42086-2 74m
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Emanuel Ax chooses three rather disparate variation works for his latest album. All of them are well known compositions and all get incisive performances. As most listeners are probably aware, the Beethoven Eroica Variations is a work featuring the main theme from the finale of the composer's watershed Third Symphony (Eroica) that goes on to offer fifteen variations of it and a Finale. Ax's treatment of the work is imaginative and well crafted but not exactly unique: he captures both the sprightly and heroic character of the music with fairly brisk tempos in the livelier music and with heft and power in the more muscular parts of the score. Regarding the latter aspect, certain chords in the opening theme ring out with a jolting impact, and later on in many places in the score you are nearly bowled over by his crushing power. In a way this could be called a percussive take on the work, especially in the first several variations and in the fugal Finale, where the counterpoint emerges clearly alright, but with the bass notes punctuating the music with much raw power. Yet, Ax is sensitive to the more delicate side of the score: try the dreamy gracefulness of the eighth variation or the sprightly wingedness of the tenth. But even in both of these there are a few moments that pack some real punch.

In the Haydn F minor Sonata Ax tamps down the brawny side a bit and turns in a quite thoughtful account, catching both the darker, searching character of the first (minor key) theme and the brighter, more elegant demeanor of the second (major) one. He plays the whole work with a deft sense for every shift in mood and color.

The Schumann Symphonic Etudes is another success here. This work contains more variety in mood and style than the other two and Ax is fully up to the composer's more varied emotional and intellectual palette. He's appropriately stately and somber in the opening theme, but wisely avoids showing too strong a contrast in the brighter, livelier first etude, as its mood is hardly a polar opposite. Ax plays up the grandly heroic character of the next etude to great effect, as well as the agitated and quirky nonchalance of the third. By the way, Ax, like many pianists, plays the two discarded etudes (Nos. 3 & 9). He also plays variations 2, 4 and 5, of the five variations that were also scrapped by Schumann. Speaking of these, Ax delivers an utterly lovely rendition of the Fourth Variation. (Why did Schumann ever decide to leave this out of the original publication?)

Ax gives us a breathless, thrilling account of Seventh Etude and closes the work out with a stunning account of the Twelfth. The latter brims with energy and joy and signs off with that all-conquering Schumannesque sense that all is well. By the way, the order in which Ax plays the etudes and variations (with track numbers) is as follows:

19. Theme: Andante
20. Etude 1
21. Etude 2
22. Etude 3
23. Etude 4
24. Etude 5
25. Variation 4
26. Variation 5
27. Etude 6
28. Etude 7
29. Etude 8
30. Variation 2
31. Etude 9
32. Etude 10
33. Etude 11
34. Etude 12

There are of course many alternative recordings in these works: Arrau is convincing in all three, but features different couplings. Actually, I doubt anyone else ever before recorded these exact three works on the same CD. For those who enjoy mixed fare, you can't go wrong with Ax here, as he turns in strongly competitive performances in all three pieces. Sony provides clear, close-up sound that may be too much of a good thing: you may want to cut back a bit on the volume as the piano sonorities are quite potent throughout. All in all this is splendid effort by Ax.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings

Trumpet