For two birthdays, a selection of fantasies
With a new year comes a new crop of composer anniversaries. Last year belonged to Handel and Haydn; 2010 marks the bicentennials of two icons of Romanticism: Chopin and Schumann. Pianist Emanuel Ax was the first to remind us of the two big birthdays: His well-filled Jordan Hall recital on Friday was devoted to music of both composers.
Three of the four large works that anchored the program had “fantasy’’ in their titles. Such a focus on caprice and unreality might seem anomalous for Ax, who long ago established himself as an unostentatious artist of poise and equanimity. Yet he unquestionably made the music work to his strengths.
The first half was dominated by Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat, Op. 61, and Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op. 17. Both were played in a way that balanced poetry and lyricism with large-scale coherence. The Chopin was full of color, especially in the languid opening, and each section of this varied and complex piece seemed to follow organically from the last, thanks to his judicious use of rubato. In the Schumann, Ax phrased the music’s larger paragraphs in long, carefully plotted arcs. One of the evening’s highlights was the third movement, which began in a state of quiet reverie and gradually attained an ecstatic sense of liberation.
Between these, Ax offered two of Chopin’s mazurkas. One in C major (Op. 24 no.2) was dry and businesslike, while the other, in C minor (Op. 56 no.3) was like a miniature drama, full of richly embellished plot twists.
The second half began with Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke,’’ Op.12. Not all of these eight character pieces caught fire: Ax didn’t quite capture the mystery of the opening “Des Abends’’ or the ambiguity of “Warum?’’ But others, such as the restless “In der Nacht’’ and the pealing bells of “Ende vom Lied,’’ were brought off perfectly.
Next came the four mazurkas of Chopin’s Op. 41 - three succinct gems followed by an extended narrative. Ax closed with an exhilarating rendition of Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. The andante was played with rippling, unforced legato, the polonaise with the requisite bravura. It’s a showpiece, but even a pianist of Ax’s integrity deserves a chance to show off at the end.
More pensive fare was on tap for the sole encore: Chopin’s wistful Waltz in A minor, Opus 34 no. 2.