Arts & Events

New: Emanuel Ax Excels in Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday April 17, 2019 - 03:24:00 PM

In concerts this weekend, April 11-14, pianist Emanuel Ax joined the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Opus 83. Paired with this work was the tone-poem Die Seejungfrau /The Mermaid by Alexander Zemlinsky. Conducting was Andrey Boreyko, the new Music and Artistic Director of Warsaw Philharmonic.  

I must begin by taking issue with the Chronicle’s music critic Joshua Kosman, who dismissed both the SF Symphony and Emanuel Ax for a performance of the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto which Kosman labeled as “bombast – a dense, dark mass of sound from orchestra and soloist alike through which the composer’s elegant balances struggled to emerge.” Unless the Thursday evening performance Kosman attended was radically different from what I heard on Friday evening, Kosman couldn’t be more off base.  

Or, let’s put it this way: if you want Brahms to be fastidious and reserved, as Kosman seems to wish, this was decidedly not your cup of tea. Instead, this was to me the most exciting rendition of the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto I’ve heard in a long time. Emanuel Ax was astounding! His technique was flawless, and he managed to emphasize the intricate relationship Brahms sought in this concerto between piano and orchestra. Moreover, Ax did so even in passages where his piano had to make itself heard alongside fortissimo passages in the full orchestra. This is no mean feat; and for Kosman to dismiss in a single, short paragraph this accomplishment, indeed, the whole performance of this concerto, as “bombast” is to my mind unconscionable.  

Unlike Kosman, the audience recognized and appreciated that it was hearing an exciting performance of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto, for they enthusiastically applauded each individual movement, as did, by the way, the audience at this work’s early performances in Austria and Germany. The first two movements are full of bravado and close with exciting climaxes. The third movement, a slow Andante, features a lovely cello solo, beautifully rendered here by Peter Wyrick, who traded intimate melodies with pianist Emanuel Ax throughout this movement. The fourth and final movement features Hungarian rhythms and melodies, vigorously performed here by orchestra and soloist under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. 

After intermission, the orchestra launched into a multi-colored rendition of Alexander Zemlinky’s Die Seejungfrau/The Mermaid, a work composed in 1902-3, then revised for its premiere in Vienna’s Musikverein in 1905. This tone-poem, based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson, evokes the underwater world of a young mermaid who rescues a handsome prince from a shipwreck, becomes smitten with the prince, and seeks to become human so she might be wedded to the prince. However, once back on terra firma the prince falls in love with a woman he sees at a religious procession, and marries her instead of the mermaid, whose unrequited longing is movingly portrayed in the third and final section of this work. At the time of this work’s composition, Zemlinsky himself was experiencing unrequited longing for Alma Schindler, who ended her affair with Zemlinsky to marry Gustav Mahler.  

The work opens by evoking the murky depths of the ocean. Then a lovely melody for solo violin conjures up the young mermaid. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s playing of this violin solo movingly brought to life a nubile, fifteen year-old mermaid eager to experience the world. Orchestral colors and textures render the undulating currents of the ocean, then evoke the drama of a storm at sea and a shipwreck, which becomes the occasion of the mermaid’s rescue of the handsome prince. Part Two of this work depicts the hunting and dancing activities of the prince’s court, plus his meeting with the woman he marries. Part Three is dominated by the unrequited longing of the mermaid for her prince, though she is granted an apotheosis at the end and rises above the waves to achieve immortality among the creatures of the air. Conductor Andrey Boreyko was obviously strongly committed to this Zemlinsky work, and he led a robust rendition of it.