Emanuel Ax: Variations = BEETHOVEN: “Eroica” Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, Op. 35; HAYDN: Variations in F Minor; SCHUMANN: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 – Emanuel Ax, piano – Sony Classical 88765 42086 2, 69:50 ****:
Recorded 25-27 June 2012 at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, this recital by Emanuel Ax – with which he has already begun touring – displays a real affection between an artist and his chosen repertory. There are two major works that comprise this fine disc: the first, Beethoven’s 1803 set of variations on a theme in E-flat Major that had already inspired him to include it in his The Creatures of Prometheus Ballet (1801) and to use it as the seventh in a set of 12 Country Dances (1802), and of course, in the finale of the 1803 Eroica Symphony. The other major opus is Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes in an edition that includes three of the posthumous variations set in Ax’s preferred arrangement.
The Beethoven piano variations enjoy a definite sense of the keyboard idiom, beginning with a 65-bar introduction that presents the bass notes of the theme, then a bit of layering in three contrapuntal lines. At the end of this long preamble Beethoven gives the theme in the treble so that it may be exploited in fifteen variants and a bravura Finale: Alla fuga. Ax seems to relish every pianistic device Beethoven conjures in the course of this Herculean excursion into keyboard improvisation and academic invention: wicked triplets and staccato chords, blazing runs, sustained trills, and a lovely 6/8 Largo section that demands a singing tone. The girth of the piece alone, if taken in live concert, makes enormous physical demands on wrist and digital articulation. The fugue in three parts opens with the first four notes of the bass theme, a gambit Brahms finds compelling, since he copies it for the fugue of his Op. 24 Variations on a Handel Theme. Ax achieves a wonderfully buoyant line throughout; then, if his natural brio were not enough, the Variation 14 receives a compelling chromatic line most forwarding-looking harmonically, and Variation 15 an exalted vision that prefigures the slow movements of the late sonatas. The potent last moments of the Fugue justify the price of admission, especially as Beethoven boasted overtly that this piece was part of “a quite new method.”
The 1793 Haydn Variations in F Minor attract Ax because of what he calls their “split personality,” with two themes: in F Minor and F Major. Each theme receives a pair of variations succeeded by a lengthy coda. Ax makes us cognizant of the special G-flat Major chord that announces the transition of the “wandering” music to a dramatically furious sensibility. Some commentators speculate that the music means to celebrate the passing of an inamorata, Marianne von Genzinger, who had died aged thirty-eight. Among Haydn’s most embroidered works, the piece – I first heard it courtesy of pianist Erno von Dohnanyi on the Remington label – the variations contrast chromatic energies in minor against the animated, flowing trills and triplets of the major-key progressions. Quite introspective as set forth, the music by Ax sets a personal air of tragic musing, and the subsequently “sunny” major variants serve as an anodyne for heartfelt loss. Ax calls the final bars “a bittersweet moment. . .as special as it is elusive.” The many adumbrations of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata in F Minor seem less than coincidental.
Schumann conceived most of his Op. 13 Symphonic Etudes in 1834, having begun the piece as a theme and sixteen variations on an idea of Baron von Fricken, plus a theme from the opera Der Templer by Marschner, based on Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Schumann kept revising the first edition (originally 1834), finally settling in 1852 to set them as Etudes en forme de variations, explicitly to parallel what Paganini had accomplished in his violin caprices. Each etude, as in those by Frederic Chopin, addresses a problem in technique, stamina, speed, clarity of line, and dexterity. The music likewise contains a lyrical narrative element, that maerchen character, as though recounting a dazzling fable. Schumann had authorized only nine variations and finale when he died in 1856; and so it came to Brahms and Clara Schumann to release the full set. Ax notes that Schumann left out two variations (3 and 9) in the final published version, here restored. Of the five posthumous variations Brahms offered to pianists as an option, Ax chooses three, “simply because I feel they are too beautiful to leave out.” Ax presents a set of Op. 13 that contains verve, lightness of hand, drama, and a fleet sense of continuity. The alternating moods of the piece easily conform to the Florestan/Eusebius dualism Schumann admitted into his own creative psyche, and Variants 4 and 5 splendidly address poetry in Schumann’s magnificent, chromatic pearls. Of course, Schumann’s reverence for Bach (as in Etude 8) asserts itself in the three-hand effects and layered counterpoint Ax executes with fluent virtue. By the time Ax performs the grand Allegro brillante from Marschner’s opera that serves as another anti-Philistine tract for Schumann, we have experienced an intelligent, consistently virile rendition of Symphonic Etudes that has a love of keyboard playing imbedded in every measure.