Arts & Events

New: Emanuel Ax Does Double-Duty with San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday January 15, 2018 - 04:26:00 PM

Veteran pianist Emanuel Ax returned to Davies Hall Thursday-Saturday, January 11-13, to perform with the San Francisco Symphony in two piano concertos -- Mozart’s 14th in E-flat Major, K. 449, and Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto Opus 42. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in this program. Bookending the two piano concertos were Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, which opened the concert, and Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel and His Merry Pranks, which closed the program.  

In composing his only opera, Fidelio, Beethoven encountered myriad difficulties. Symptomatic of these difficulties is the fact that he wrote and re-wrote several overtures for this opera. The Leonore Overture No. 3 is a brilliant work, but, as Donald Tovey noted, in offering a précis of the opera’s final act, “it annihilates the first act.” Realizing this, Beethoven wrote a simpler, more festive curtain-raiser, the Fidelio Overture. (In some performances of Fidelio, the Leonore Overture is played prior to the final act.) As performed here by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the Leonore Overture began in a very slow, very dark, almost lugubrious, mood. Such an interpretation emphasizes, indeed, exaggerates, the desperate plight of Florestan, who is incarcerated in an underground cistern, where he is confined in chains in total darkness and silence. Just at the point when Florestan bemoans the fact that in the springtime of his life happiness was taken from him, a trumpet sounds from afar (offstage), announcing what will ultimately bring Florestan’s liberation and resurrection. All of this action, which requires an entire act in the opera, is condensed in the Leonore Overture into fourteen minutes of orchestral music. Although MTT’s laborious treatment of the opening measures seemed off-putting, his interpretation perked up and became affirmative, indeed, heroic as soon as the trumpet blasts livened things up. 

Next on the program featured Emanuel Ax as soloist in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, K. 449. Composed between 1782 and 1784, this concerto was written at a time when Mozart was frequenting the Viennese musical soirées at the home of the Baron von Swieten, who favored the music of Handel and J.S. Bach. It was at this time that Mozart began to interest himself seriously in writing fugues. Indeed, the third and final movement of the 14th Piano Concerto is thoroughly contrapuntal, though it is perhaps more in the style of J.S. Bach’s son Philipp Emanuel Bach than that of the senior Bach. Mozart wrote this concerto to show off the talents of one of his most gifted pupils, Barbara (“Babette”) Ployer. However, it was Mozart himself who led from the piano at this work’s Vienna premiere on March 17, 1784. Mlle. Ployer seems to have played the work a few days later, at the earliest on March 23, 1784.  

Mozart’s intention to offer something unconventional is evident in the first movement’s triple meter, a ¾ meter, which makes this one of only three Mozart piano concertos to begin in triple meter. The abrupt modulations of the opening bars emphasize the restless quality of this material. When the piano enters, it takes command and gives momentary order to this movement. However, drama returns in the development, which is built around trills in the last bars of the opening tutti. Emanuel Ax then brilliantly performed the cadenza written for this first movement by Mozart. The second movement, marked Andantino, offers two themes in alternation. The first is begun by the orchestra then taken up by the piano. The second is initiated by the piano and only later taken up by the orchestra. The final movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, is in the form of a sonata-rondo. But there are so many rich contrapuntal variations explored here that its form might more aptly be considered a set of variations. There is much cross-handed playing required of the soloist, and Emanuel Ax handled these difficult passages with aplomb. The finale was exuberant.  

After intermission, Emanuel Ax returned to perform Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 42. By way of introduction to this twelve-tone work, Michael Tilson Thomas grabbed the microphone to ‘explain’ to an apprehensive audience that in spite of its forbidding twelve-tone construction, Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto was in reality nothing to be afraid of. In fact, it was just an offbeat version of a trite and very traditional sort of Viennese parlor tune. To demonstrate what he meant, MTT said he had recomposed the opening measures of Schoenberg’s concerto so that Emanuel Ax could play this version to reassure the audience before Ax tackled the music that Schoenberg actually wrote. Going along with MTT’s schmaltzy ploy, Emanuel Ax then played MTT’s four-square reduction, and, sure enough, no atonality reared its ugly head. MTT then asked Ax to play Schoenberg’s own opening measures, and, voilà, there was enough resemblance between the two versions to enable the audience to breathe a sigh of relief. This whole ploy by MTT smacked of smarmy manipulation and condescension.  

When Emanuel Ax and the orchestra finally got around to playing what Schoenberg wrote, the music was as forbiddingly difficult as ever, in spite of MTT’s schoolboy effort to domesticate it. Composed in four sections that proceed without a pause, the concerto opens with waltz-like music that seems to symbolize Old World Vienna before the Nazi invasion. But this is waltz-like music with rough, jagged edges. Only the music’s rich coloration makes it palatable. Then an outburst from the trombones signals the opening of a second, far more menacing, section. This demonic scherzo seems to represent the onset of Nazi Germany’s campaign of racial hatred. A dark third section ensues with mournful violas and haunting woodwinds. Then Emanuel Ax launches into the first of two cadenzas Schoenberg wrote for this section. Ax performed this cadenza with superb artistry, and when the orchestra resumed playing a grand climax occurred, followed by an instant of silence. Then Emanuel Ax launched into the second cadenza, offering another piece of brilliant piano dexterity. These two cadenzas, as performed by Emanuel Ax, almost succeeded in making this twelve-tone work palatable, if not likeable. A brief final section brought Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto to an unorthodox and abrupt close. 

The final work on this program was Richard Strauss’s 1895 tone-poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Based on German folk-tales about a mischievous prankster named Till Eulenspiegel, this work by Strauss is full of rich coloration, tongue-in-cheek humor, and musical jests. It is a thoroughly beguiling work, and the San Francisco Symphony gave it a robust, highly entertaining rendition.