In a striking departure from his originally announced program, Pianist Emanuel Ax offered up a concert devoted entirely to the genre of the theme and variations Tuesday night at Bass Hall.
Although the bulk of the program was given over to recognized masterpieces from the Austro-German tradition, Ax opened the evening with a pungent twentieth-century American work, Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930. Still ten years away from the loveable nationalism of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and the Fanfare for the Common Man when he wrote the Variations, Copland here presented a stringent, energetic dissonance that bewildered early listeners. Ax, however, found the nascent sonorities and lyricism tucked into this sometimes brutal score, creating a compelling listening experience.
From there, Ax eased delicately, with a feather-light touch, into Haydn’s Andante and Variations in F minor, playing up the humor and occasional suspense that eventually breaks through, near the end, into a proto-romantic passion. The gradually intensifying mood of the Haydn in turn fed naturally into the roller-coaster ride of Beethoven’s Eroica Variations. Ax’s understanding of the tension of chaos and structure in this music allowed him to arrive with revelatory power at the fugue.
Throughout the first half of the concert, Ax had demonstrated unfailing technical as well as intellectual command of the music. Schumann’s monumental “Symphonic Etudes,” which made up the entire second half, provided even greater challenges and opportunites for Ax. In this gigantic set of variations, Schumann offers up one technical challenge after another while exploring the sonorities and expressive possibilities of what was still a relatively new instrument at the time the work was written. Ax reveled in the amazing sonic effects Schumann presents, but fully realized the emotional journey as well, from sorrow to almost giddy joy to final triumph.
Sparkling waltzes by Chopin and Liszt provided encores for an audience that had been carried to musical heights by an artist who well deserves his reputation as one of the preeminent musicians of our time.
Photo: (c) Maurice Jerry Beznos