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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 5

Emmanuel Ax: Just Call Him Manny

by Lucie Renaud / February 3, 2011

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An enthralling wealth of sound that serves Brahms beautifully, a crystalline touch that conveys Mozart as if improvising, a virtuosity that remains subservient to the intelligence of musical speech: Emanuel Ax subtly enchants audiences and critics alike. Whether performing with an orchestra or one of his long-time chamber music companions, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman (with whom he recorded Mendelssohn’s trios in 2009), or in tandem with the pianist Yefim Bronfman, he almost always succeeds in surprising. Whether you hear him now for the first time or you discovered him back in 2007, when he recorded those wonderful programs with the CBC’s Eric Friesen discussing the major concertos of the repertoire while playing excerpts on the piano, after hearing a few notes, or a few words spoken in his warm voice, you feel close to him, as if he had magically turned into a likeable pal whom everyone knoes as just... Manny.

Born in Poland and raised in Winnipeg, he studied music and French literature in New York, and married the Japanese pianist Yoko Nozaki; thus, Emanuel Ax was a citizen of the world long before the global village became fashionable. He thinks an artist must assimilate a variety of backgrounds, cultures and experiences and be able to pass on the results of this comingling to the public. He is a regular guest of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal but has not been heard in recital here since 1976, two years after winning the first Arthur Rubinstein International Competition. Unwilling to choose between recital and concert playing, he sees them both as complementary. “I think piano music is the most exciting thing in the world,” he said on the telephone. “There is a special challenge and a special kind of terrible fear combined with the jolt of being out there all by yourself. Of course, we are used to practising by ourselves. But when on stage with an orchestra, you are on stage with a lot of friends, there is a conversation going on between you and your colleagues.”

He admits to feeling very nervous before going on stage, an indefinite feeling that sometimes persists even when he is enfolded in music. “Of course, practising matters, but you also need to get rest, arrange your schedule so that at eight o’clock in the evening on any given day, you’re at your best. When I play I never take things lightly. I’d like to be more relaxed, but I work hard not to let it interfere with giving the best performance we can. Ideally, the reaction from the public should be: this is incredibly beautiful, meaningful music that we heard tonight; this composer really meant a lot to me tonight. If an audience feels that, then I think I’ve done a good job!”

Even though he is over 60 and might be forgiven for wanting to slow down, Emanuel Ax shows no sign of having reached his peak; on the contrary, he continues to embark on new projects: he is currently working on Bach’s partitas and Schubert’s sonatas, and will be showcasing the latter composer in Montreal. “I think one can always improve and I still have some years to do so. We are very lucky to be dealing with material that is deep and interesting from so many points of views that you never really get to see it all. With whatever music you’re working on, you never feel you’ve explored every side of it, which makes it exciting to be a pianist. If you’ve been playing something like Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which I have been for 35 years now, I’ve never felt I finally understood every point of view on this piece. There are about another 50 ways to approach it and to feel about it and I look forward to the next two years of working on it! We’re lucky we get to work on things that are never-ending. The piece actually only exists when you play it. Of course, there is a paper version, but it’s not really the piece. The piece is when you put it into sound. Therefore, each particular performance can be—and should be—different. People who go to a lot of concerts and hear the great masterpieces react differently every time they hear that music. They never feel they’ve heard the Beethoven Concerto last week, so they never have to hear it again. Every time you hear it, it’s a new thing.”

While he considers recordings essential, he sees them as incentives for seeking out live music in the concert hall: “I think live performance is a fantastic thing both for the performer and the audience. Of course, you like to have a wonderful recording of the piece but you also want to hear that person live.” He draws a parallel with rock bands or sports events that continue to draw crowds. “If I can hear a great pianist on record—there are so many!—say the Beethoven sonatas by Murray Perahia, this does not necessarily imply that I will not go somewhere to listen to him. It is rather a matter of thinking: I have the recording, and I can’t wait to hear what he sounds like in the concert hall!”

Aware of the pessimism pervading the classical music scene, Emanuel Ax refuses to admit defeat. “I don’t have an overview; I can only speak from my point of view. As a performer who observes things, I disagree with that general assessment. I think there are many people who like the kind of music that we do, but that everything is being splintered. You may remember the time when we had only three television channels and now, there are 500. I think the difference is there are now many more ways of enjoying yourself, of learning about things, and we have to accept the fact that classical is not going to be able to compete with a movie like Titanic. It’s not going to work that way, but there are still a lot of people interested in classical music and who love it. I think in a way it has nothing to do with socioeconomic status, except possibly the price of tickets. In fact, if tickets are very expensive, it’s normal that older people are the ones able to afford them. If we figure out ways to make it acceptable financially speaking, I think more young people will come. Some performers today are helping tremendously to bridge the gap between popular impulse and a kind of ivory tower thinking, people like Yo-Yo Ma, Simon Rattle and Lang Lang. A lot of schools and conservatories are realizing that just to teach someone to play brilliantly is not enough for a modern-day artist and they are exploring different talents of people who are funny, charismatic. I think the new generation will make this world better for all of us, and it fills me with optimism.”

Société Pro Musica, February 14, 7 p.m. www.promusica.qc.ca

His recital programme

While Emanuel Ax has touched upon Schubert’s chamber music several times over the years, he has only recently started looking at his sonatas and impromptus, albeit with a great deal of reverence and awe: “Schubert’s music is wonderful and you can never spoil it completely.” He designed his recital as a triptych, including the huge Sonata in B flat and the radiant Sonata in A major, Op. 120. The programme begins with the Impromptus Op. 142, themselves a kind of great sonata beginning and ending in F minor with two sets of variations in between.

“I’ve always adored the Sonata Op. 120,” enthused the pianist. “It’s incredibly perfect and beautiful and, unfortunately, I found it is very hard. One of the funny things I’m discovering playing Schubert—which I already knew in a way from playing the trios—is that he was not a pianist on the level of Beethoven or Mozart. A lot of the stuff doesn’t sound so terribly difficult but it is. It has no relation to pianistic display because, in Beethoven, he made sure people knew that the stuff is really hard when it is. With Schubert, very often, you don’t get that. It’s lovely music that’s lilting and easy on the ear and pianistically not difficult; yet, it’s impossible. So this is what I’m fighting with most of the time!”

“I think in a way the difference between Schubert and Beethoven, if you want to take another great composer, whom Schubert admired a lot, is that with Beethoven you’re always incredibly aware of time, of time passing, and how much time things take. With Schubert, it’s the exact opposite. In the ideal performance of the Sonata in B flat, you can’t tell if it’s five minutes or an hour. It stops, it starts and you are just in it and you don’t know how much time has passed. If I can get some of that into that piece, I’m on the right track.”

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