Mozart Perfection Midsummer: Emanuel Ax performs Mozart at Tanglewood, August 7, 2011…and a Triumph for Young Bringuier

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Pianist Emanuel Ax

Tanglewood Music Festival
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lionel Bringuier, Conductor
Emanuel Ax, Piano

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K.482.
Bedřich Smetana, “The Moldau” from Má Vlast
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64

While the Mozart concerto is about thirty minutes compared to Tchaikovsky’s fifty-minute symphony, its richness and diversity seem more expansive than in the Russian’s fateful masterpiece.  The E-flat Major concerto from 1785 is not the most frequently performed of Mozart’s Viennese concerti, and the innovations in outer movements are sometimes disparaged in comparison, say, to the K. 450, K.488 or K.503. No one disputes the luscious wind writing in these movements, nor the joviality of the finale that includes an interpolated menuet sounding like something from Le nozze di Figaro, which Mozart was writing at the time. Repeated hearings, though, of the first Allegro will convince anyone of its nobility, warmth, and structural ingenuity.  To my ears, the finale is pure ambrosia.

However, the center movement has always been the most highly regarded of the three, even in Mozart’s day:  after its première on December 23, 1785, the audience requested an immediate encore of this remarkable “black pearl.”  The muted strings introduce a theme in two sections which is taken up in three variations by piano with increasing intensity and contrapuntal interest and dynamic contrast.  Accompanying instruments gather in number, force and color with each darkly hued C minor variation, creating a mounting tension, relieved each time by wind interludes in E-flat major, and C major respectively. These sunny diversions diffuse the overall tension while seeming to initiate even greater pathos.  A wind phrase, transformed from a starkly recalcitrant utterance, is used as the plaintive epilogue to this great movement preparing us, in a way, for the jocund Sonata-Rondo third movement.

One of my favorite Mozart recordings with Emanuel Ax is a near thirty-year old reading of K.453 and K.456 with Pinchas Zukerman and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (RCA Victrola). Ax’s interpretation this afternoon was reminiscent of his approach to these concerti so many years ago.  Having collected contemporary versions of K.482 by Alfred Brendel, Jonathan Biss, Derek Han, Rudolf Buchbinder, and David Fray, Mr. Ax stands alone in my estimation.  He insists on a singing legato, long phrases, and surprisingly moderate tempi.  If Mr. Ax had followed suit with performers who wish to recreate the punchy sound of an eighteenth-century pianoforte by détaché phrasing and bouncy, quick-clipped tempi, he would sound merely like the rest.  By attenuating the tempo and keeping the phrases long, Mr. Ax, with the help of the remarkable talented young conductor, Lionel Bringuier, was able to indulge in some dramatic rhetoric and tasteful rubato near important cadences.  Only David Fray’s recent recording comes close to Mr. Ax’s refined “long view” interpretation.

Mr. Ax’s approach, and how potent it could be, was demonstrated in the first movement.  The recapitulation is actually prematurely signaled by a gorgeous new theme for piano in A-flat major, the subdominant of the expected return of the imperious opening theme’s tonic. Mr. Ax leads up to this by slowing the development section and dissipating it in tempo and dynamics to a halting mezzo-piano. By doing so, the ensuing return is more dramatic and “final.” His own cadenza in this movement was thrilling and rather Beethovenesque, with darkly colored episodes, and brilliant parallel passagework.  Mr. Ax even supplied a little improvisation at the close of the “black pearl” centerpiece. In the third movement, in a very relaxed tempo, Mr. Ax’s long phrases lovingly dispatched the gigue-like sonata-rondo. In the development’s menuet interpolation, Mozart quickly notated the piano part with a simple restatement of the instrumental theme.  By doing so, Mozart was probably giving a performer latitude for modification. Mr. Ax opted for considerable embellishment, which is entirely keeping with performance practice. Some pianists uphold literalism here, like Rudolf Buchbinder, for example, and play these sections come scritto, but it’s a lot of fun to hear them jazzed up like this afternoon. Mr. Ax’s final cadenza was remarkable and entertaining as it quoted Mozart’s music both inside and outside the context of the concerto, suggesting a transcendence unlike any cadenza I’ve heard for this concerto.  It was a thrilling and provocative conclusion that never let one forget that Mr. Ax is both a great virtuoso and master musician.

Conductor Lionel Bringuier

Young Lionel Bringuier, who is Resident Conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León in Valladolid, Spain, made his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this afternoon.  “The Moldau” is one of those pieces that was, at one time, so overly familiar that it has become relegated to “Pop” status and is heard less frequently these days.  Yet, Mr. Bringuier’s interpretation breathed something fresh and innovative into this short work that was disarming and appealing. There was a delicate attention to contrapuntal detail and lyrical phrasing that conjured warmth and light to match the late midsummer mood.  Each instrumental entry was beautifully shaped, and the work surprisingly transcended its status of a mere orchestral chestnut.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony  No. 5 is one of his most obsessive works:  the use of a recurring “fate” theme pervades the four movements.  His notebooks in April 1888 disclose something of the programmatic nature of this work:

Programme 1st movement of symph[ony].
Intr[oduction]. Total  submission before fate, or, what is the same thing, the inscrutable designs of Providence.
Allegro. 1) Murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against… XXX
II) Shall I cast myself into the embrace of faith???

The “XXX” is regarded as Tchaikovsky’s cryptic reference to his own homosexuality, with which the composer grappled in deep bouts of melancholy. Ultimately, the saturnine and ruminative themes of the first movement, in E minor, are triumphantly resolved and restated in E major of the final movement.  From the very opening, with bassoons and low voiced clarinets, to the finale with its great brass perorations, articulation, virtuosity and color are paramount.  The famous and lyric theme D-major theme in the second movement, perhaps the most memorable of the symphony, requires a light touch lest the sense of climax be reached too early.  Mr. Bringuier’s was an inspired reading, and the Bostonians never sounded better.  The brass in the coda was especially rich and splendid.

The hall was packed this afternoon, and, after the Tchaikovsky, Mr. Bringuier received a standing and roaring ovation.  The rumors of slipping attendance in the wake of James Levine’s departure seemed baseless today.  I was reminded of the old days in Tanglewood when the lawn was brimming with relaxed picnickers and the shed virtually full.  Mr. Bringuier, poised for a great future, it seems, can bring the best out of this orchestra with his fresh perspective and enthusiasm.   Of course, he has a great orchestra behind him with the likes of Emanuel Ax to make things perfect.

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