The distinguished pianist Emanuel Ax helped the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra launch its 50th season, magnificently performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. What can possibly be said about this internationally renowned pianist who has been thrilling the public with his supreme pianism and deep devotion to music making at the highest order for more than 35 years? Simply that he did it again.
I have never seen a performer so engaged in the orchestra’s playing. From small gestures of conducting, to intently watching the conductor, to softly playing a couple of notes with his left hand — all aided the pianist in his becoming the proper character for his entrance in the music making. Watching Ax interact with the music was viewing an artist become totally engaged with the unfolding drama.
From the opening rolled chord on the piano Ax perfectly captured the character of this lofty score. First dramatic, then sprightly humorous, then lyric. His powerful trills, which started gently and became ever more forceful, were a wonder to hear. The first movement cadenza attested to the pianist’s technical ability as he easily tossed off the octaves and bravura passages. But Ax’s playing was not just about virtuosity, although that was an aspect, to be sure. Rather, it was his ability to play gently, delicately, forcefully — all of which were used in the service of his commitment to communicate the essence of the music. Unstoppable applause issued forth from the audience at the conclusion of the first movement. Entirely appropriate.
The middle movement of this 1807 concerto combines drama with supreme lyricism; it is an unusual soundscape comparable to very little in all of the literature. Loud unison strings alternate with gentle, pleading, hymn-like utterances from the piano until a long-winded, gorgeous poetic melody issues from the piano. The movement ends in extreme mystery. And Ax’s playing was breathtaking.
The rhythmic energy of the final movement threatens to burst the seams of the score. It was a wild ride for both soloist and orchestra, and each added their individual energy to the proceedings. Throughout the concerto, Ax and GSO Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky worked closely to ensure synchronicity. Although occasionally one felt that the soloist would have liked to move forward a bit more than the orchestra, the two forces supported each other admirably.
The cheers of the approving large audience brought Ax back to the stage several times before he treated the audience to a jewel of an encore, a beautiful rendition of Robert Schumann’s “Evening” from his Fantasy Pieces.
The other two works on the concert were written within 40 years of Beethoven’s concerto. The second half of the concert was devoted to Mendelssohn’s last symphony, the “Scottish” in A minor, a great Romantic piece. Although it does not contain any “authentic” Scottish tunes, the mood evoked in each of the four movements, all of which are played without a break, easily conjures up images of that land.
The symphony opens with a hymn, which gives way to dramatic strings and eventually employs the entire resources of the orchestra. One is reminded of a stormy sea upon which the listener is buffeted by wind and waves. The GSO conveyed this mood in good style.
The second movement Scherzo is chock full of folk-sounding tunes wonderfully played by many solo instruments. The slow third movement contains many ingratiating melodies which were warmly played, especially by the violas and cellos, which are called into the spotlight several times. The finale again conjures up Scotland, with athletic and virtuoso orchestral writing.
The evening opened with the dark and moody Manfred Overture by Schumann. This eleven-minute movement is packed with enough tension and drama to satisfy the thirst of any bleary-eyed romantic. Sitkovetsky’s intense leading of the forces resulted in a powerful reading, setting the stage for the rest of the evening.