Review: Emanuel Ax – Piano, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape, June 25

Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven at Aldeburgh Festival

Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven at Aldeburgh Festival - Credit: Archant

For his first visit to Aldeburgh the Polish-born pianist Emanuel Ax gave an all-Beethoven recital including two of his most frequently performed sonatas.

The ‘Grand Sonata Pathetique’, published in 1799 but probably composed a year earlier was the first of Beethoven’s sonatas to achieve widespread popularity. Ax made the opening adagio weighty and measured, the main allegro fleet and nimble, gazelle like. The slow movement was perfectly delivered, the central theme ever clear above the moving underlay yet every modulation and rhythmic shift precisely articulated.

The Variations in F op 34 packs a lot into fourteen minutes, during which the original theme is not so much varied as transformed in each contrasting variation, all of which are in a different key. Ax captured every facet of the imaginative writing in a most engaging performance.

The Sonata op 31/1 is one of Beethoven’s most cheerful, despite being written in the same year as the Heiligenstadt Testament. The pervasive jerky chords and tumultuous arpeggio passages exploded into the hall and in no time at all we were sailing along to the charming, untroubled second subject. Yet unexpected gusts and squalls were around every corner and it was a sufficiently invigorating experience to draw a round of applause. The slow movement is one of Beethoven’s most elaborate from his earlier period and the more florid passages were played with an easy grace and fluency such that the overall structure was not lost in the detail.

The penultimate work was the engaging Polonaise in C, a well-considered few minutes of relaxation before the Appassionata. The latter began, soft and brooding, before the syncopated chords burst out to launch the turbulent movement. Once again everything seemed absolutely right, Ax had everything under control and the highly contrasting sections blended into a convincing unity. The slow movement flowed seamlessly, the main theme never lost in the thickets of demi-semiquavers and the finale grumbled ominously until it could contain itself no longer and ended in a stormy presto. A beautifully played Chopin Nocturne encore was a fitting end to a glorious evening.

One cannot praise this concert too highly. An all-Beethoven recital can be overpowering but the judicious choice of sonatas and two lighter pieces gave moments of breathing space. Emanuel Ax is a superb musician, perhaps too rarely heard in Britain. He does what all great pianists do – he simply plays what the composer wrote and illuminates the music for us all. Aldeburgh should invite him back.

Gareth Jones

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