SCHENECTADY — Pianist Emanuel Ax, a fixture on the international scene, returned Thursday night to the Union College Concert Series after a four-year absence to give a masterful recital focused on the music of Johannes Brahms.
An concert of Brahms as well as the New York premieres of new works inspired by Brahms’ music, by Missy Mazzoli and Australian composer Brett Dean, might seem a bit of an overload. But Ax, who has been a great admirer of the composer’s music for decades, chose selections that showed the range and development of Brahms’ skills, which in itself proved interesting.
He’ll repeat the entire program in May at Carnegie Hall. The two new works were premiered earlier this year in Europe as part of Ax’s Brahms Project.
Brahms was a formidable pianist and often wrote to challenge himself, with big chordal displays and dense textures. He was a creative genius in his favorite theme and variations form. Stamina was the name of the game, and Ax proved effortless, focused, eloquent and marvelously prepared with a showman’s sense of style.
He began with Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2 (1853). A teenager’s effort with its raw, earthy energy reflected in the numerous octave studies and dreamy romantic passages, Ax was bold, dramatic, used a big sound and expert pedaling to keep all that dense texture clear.
Dean’s piece, “Hommage a Brahms” (2013), could be done either as a set of three or with each sandwiched between two of Brahms’ Intermezzos from his “Klavierstucke, Op. 119” (1893). By choosing the latter course, Dean’s cleverness and skills in reflecting the previous Intermezzo’s mood or technical style were spotlighted.
Intermezzo in B minor was dreamy and tender. Dean’s “Engelsflugel 1” matched those timbres but added motifs that seemed to inquire and seek. Intermezzo in E minor was faster with subtle colors, tempo shifts and a lovely romantic lullabye. Dean’s “Hafenkneipenmusik” had streams of notes in a similar mood.
Intermezzo in C Major was sunny with a dark underpinning. Dean’s “Engelsflugel 2” was spare with slow moving lines and comments in the high treble. Brahms’ “Rhapsodie in E-flat Major” was a big festive finale. Ax was superb and well-paced throughout.
Missy Mazzoli’s perfectly titled “Bolts of Loving Thunder” (2013) was stormy with undulating repeated figures, striking harmonies, vivid colors, crosshand technique. Rather than melody, there was atmosphere. It was a great piece and Ax sounded terrific.
In Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (1861), each of the 25 variations and the final Bach-like fugue were superlative in every way. The capacity crowd cheered, stomped their feet and got as encore a delicate Intermezzo.