Emanuel Ax explores Beethoven sonatas; Pamela Frank returns…with Brahms at Tannery Pond

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Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax take their bows. Photo Leslie Teicholz.
Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax take their bows. Photo Leslie Teicholz.

Tannery Pond Concerts
Sunday, August 12, 2012 at 4 pm

Beethoven – Sonata in A major, Op. 2 No. 2
Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”
Brahms – Sonata in G major for violin & piano, Op. 78, No. 1

Pamela Frank, violin
Emanuel Ax, piano

There was a certain amount of mystery surrounding this concert since the Tannery Pond season was first announced earlier this year. Venues usually have Emanuel Ax’s programs in plenty of time to include them in their advance season previews. Even if a musician’s repertory is generally familiar, audiences begin to feel insecure, if they don’t know what they’re going to hear in advance, but Emanuel Ax is one of the few musicians who can sell out a house without a program, and that is what happened. The delay made it possible offer a very special surprise, the return of the great violinist, Pamela Frank, to the concert stage after an absence of over a decade. In 2001, she received acupuncture treatment for a hand injury, and this in turn damaged nerves in her arm. She has been teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Peabody Conservatory, as well as a variety of summer music schools and festivals, but it has been uncertain whether she would be able to play again. She played Brahms’ First Violin Sonata in G Major. This wasn’t the only unusual thing about this concert. It has come to my attention that Mr. Ax was performing Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata for the first time in public, which is surprising, to say the least. In any case, appearances by musicians of Emanuel Ax’s caliber do have a certain predictable aspect (Ax is hardly a Michelangeli, a Gould or a Richter — nor would he want to be.), but this one became an adventure…and Tannery Pond became the scene of a historical event, at least for lovers of chamber music.

It is exciting enough to be able to hear Mr. Ax’s playing “close up,” that, is in the intimate, acoustically warm and immediate Tannery, and both he and Ms. Frank were delighted with that, as well as the attentiveness of the Tannery audience, but the music-making is what counts. Ax is used to projecting into halls like Carnegie and Symphony Hall, and he easily filled the Tannery with as rich and big a sound as ever, but the opening bars of his first offering, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2 No. 2, were among the most delicate sounds I have heard from the Tannery Yamaha. We were in an especially favorable position to hear the full range of his dynamics, color, and texture.

Op. 2 No. 2’s august and deeply felt second movement (Largo appassionato) is one of Beethoven’s earliest adumbrations of the depths of feeling he was to achieve in his mature slow movements. Close in spirit to Haydn, the dedicatee of the sonata, this Largo has inherited the legacy of his most dignified and serious slow movements, as well as Haydn’s own inheritance from the Baroque. The slow movement of Haydn’s D Major Piano Sonata offers a parallel. Its great massing of rising chords over descending octaves can take full advantage of the resonance of a modern piano and should never be understated — or, better, minimized. In other words, a light approach, one which might bring it down to the level of Beethoven’s lighter works of those years — which admittedly isn’t all that far — is not what the piece needs. Now Emanuel Ax is capable of stunning lightness, and we all talk about the perfection to which he has brought the art of understatement, but everything was in its place: the playful Haydnesque figurations of the first movement, the gravity of the second movement, and the alternation of gracious ease and gruff, energetic outbursts in the final movement were all just right — and all set within a framework of generous, broad tempi. Mr. Ax fully realized all the aural and spiritual beauties of the work and came as close to perfection as one can expect in this world.

At the concert I did not yet know that this “Pathétique” was a first for the pianist, but the very first bars came as a surprise. They sounded fresh and new to me, and I was wondering how he managed to rethink the work in this way. In fact, at least as far as pubic performance goes, it was new to him. The slow introduction moved forward with poignant urgency, leading into a ripping allegro. It was faster than usual, but clearly articulated, forcefully accented, and solidly grounded. The first movement had the organic flow of the Fifth Symphony. A sensitively colored, thoughtful adagio followed, with a wonderfully shaded, singing melodic line. Ax invited us into the movement in his gracious way, but always seriously focused on the music — uncompromisingly, in fact — and I immediately found myself immersed. I was amazed to find myself so directly connected to this familiar music. The last movement was a fine balance of articulate classical pianism and literate rhetorical expression. Ax’s delay in approaching the “Pathétique” paid off. His ability to create the feeling of a new discovery was astonishing.

Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax play Brahms. Photo Leslie Teicholz.
Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax play Brahms. Photo Leslie Teicholz.

Pamela Frank is a radiant woman to begin with, but when she began to play, the radiance took up residence in the strings of her instrument. Conversely, the emotional pith of the music produced a reaction in her facial expression, which changed constantly, as Brahms gently led us through the winding paths, the shadows and patches of sun in his garden — on a psychic level, I mean. Structurally, his garden is formal and classical. If you’re driving north of Rome, you can visit the gardens at the Villa Lante and the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo in the same day without rushing, if you don’t take on much else. Then, blissfully fatigued, you can relive them both in memory over a fine dinner and a bottle of Orvieto under an old vine at a nearby agriturismo. Brahms G Major Violin Sonata is like that. Making the tour with Pamela Frank is an especially deeply felt and resonant experience. The overall form is always in sight, but we are continually drawn into the feelings of the moment, the dusky, almost cello-like sound of her lower strings, the brilliant glow of her lines above the stave, and all the humane insights she expresses through them. Tempi were on the broad side to facilitate this immersion. Frank showed the luxurious sound of a concert violinist, but she used it, seemingly as much by instinct as by a willed sense of style, in an expressive way appropriate to great chamber music. In fact, I’ve heard some very famous violinists indulge in some inappropriate showmanship in the last movement, but that couldn’t have been further from Ms. Frank’s mind. Her playing were in the best Marlboro tradition — and highly personal to boot. She had entirely her own way of making every note and rest felt as well as heard. Characteristically, violin chords in the inner voices, which other violinists often treat recessively, without much expression, came fully alive in Frank’s hands. She could not have had a more sensitive and sympathetic partner than Emanuel Ax. The performance was pure joy throughout. We can only be grateful that Pamela Frank is playing again, and that Emanuel Ax continues to develop his many-sided genius in such unexpected ways.

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