DISAPPOINTING PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS CONCERTO BY AX

By Lawrence Budmen 

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote two piano concertos that are truly symphonies with piano obbligato. The rich instrumental scoring and virtuosic keyboard writing require performance on an Olympian level. The "Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major," Opus 83 of 1881 is a broad, four movement canvas that poses a formidable challenge to any soloist who performs the music. Despite a strong technique Emanuel Ax was found wanting in his traversal of this monumental work on April 11 at the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale with the patrician Dresden Staatskapelle under the direction of Myung Whun Chung - the concluding presentation of the season by the Concert Association. 

Ax has long been noted for his exceptional musicianship and insightful artistry. He can be incredibly sensitive in Mozart and Chopin and deeply probing in Beethoven. Many of these qualities were on display in his Brahms 2nd Concerto performance. Yet he failed to encompass the score's monumental scale. Like Murray Perahia, he tended to substitute hard edged volume for profundity in Brahms's often eloquent score. The grand arc of the first movement and the music's rich romantic chromaticism tended to elude Ax despite a note perfect traversal.Ax's matter of fact phrasing missed the bittersweet romantic irony of the Allegro appassionato. In the sublime Andante the Dresden orchestra's principal cellist Wolfgang-Emanuel Schmidt displayed a glowing tone and phrased with heavenly beauty. Ax, a great chamber musician, blended beautifully with the solo cello even if he did not match Schmidt's eloquence. Only in the Allegretto grazioso finale did Ax finally display his customary insight. He caught the humor and large scale passion of Brahms's deceptively light weight writing. He was given strongly committed support by Chung and his superb musicians.

The Dresden Staatskapelle traces its history back four and a half centuries. The richly burnished string tone and warm, mellow wind and brass playing lend this venerable ensemble its distinctive "Dresden sound." The sonority and tonal beauty of this orchestra is like no other. Chung is a formidable conductor. His interpretation of Brahms's "Symphony No.4 in E Minor," Opus 98 was impassioned and evocative. The taut drama of the opening Allegro non troppo made this listener feel he was hearing this thrice familiar music for the first time. The broad spaciousness of the Andante moderato captured the music's eloquent yearning. (Anton Bruckner was clearly inspired by this work.) What head long intensity and gusto Chung and the orchestra brought to the Allegro grazioso! The playing of the horns in the trio was in a class by itself. The final Passacaglia can seem long and diffuse in less skillful hands but Chung's rhythmic urgency and unflagging sense of drama produced an unforgettable performance! A memorable combination of white hot musical intensity, patrician artistry, and glowing, dark hued orchestral playing! 

In response to a standing, cheering ovation, Chung offered Brahms's "Hungarian Dance No.1" as an encore - played with flair and remarkable clarity of instrumental texture. The combination of Chung and the Dresden Staatskapelle is what musical legends are all about!


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