Ax enthralls

Concert Review: Ax enthralls audience with subtle, technically brilliant performance


Thursday, November 18, 1999

By Rebecca Redshaw

A postcard sent to Pittsburgh in mid-November from a sumptuous tropical island is worthy of a spot on the refrigerator door: “Having a great time. Wish you were here.”
Those brief, but concise sentiments are sent via this column to all who missed the Emanuel Ax piano recital at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland last night.

Sponsored by the Y Music Society, Ax, who debuted with the Y in Pittsburgh in 1974, performed for an audience appreciative of his extraordinary talent.

Opening with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major, the soloist effortlessly coaxed and cajoled the opening allegro, subtly transitioning from one theme to another.

Like a rose blooming in slow motion, Ax gently unfolded the second movement before bursting forth into the finale.

Though Haydn’s chordal progressions are predictable, the pianist peaked the listeners’ interest through changes in dynamics with a technical agility that never seemed rushed.

Ax could give a tutorial to his contemporaries in “Building an Understanding and an Appreciation for Contemporary Music.”

Rather than performing the relatively unfamiliar Fantasia on an Ostinato without explanation, he spoke briefly of John Corigliano’s 1985 work and the recurring variation of a theme from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Ax’s description of it as ” an extremely beautiful and haunting piece” was confirmed by his musical rendition.

The theme was intermittently percussive, using full range of the keyboard throughout before returning to Beethoven’s theme in the left hand and the eerie repetition of notes in the right.

At times, Claude Debussy’s work is overperformed, if not overproduced, yet in the hands of Ax, the three movements of Estampes and the solo, L’Isle of joyese, were played with clarity and restraint, particularly in the pianissimo passages.

But the best was saved for last.

If Ax had played no other piece than Frederic Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, the evening would have been complete.

Forget about brilliant technique, other artists’ interpretations, changes in tempos or dynamics. No fussing children in the orchestra section and no errant coughs from the balcony broke the musical spell Ax cast performing the largo movement.

Ax preceded the sonata with Chopin’s Berceuse in D-flat Major. Composed at approximately the same time as the sonata, the haunting melody shares a similar theme.


Rebecca Redshaw is a writer and playwright who free-lances for the Post-Gazette.