Beethoven: Variations and Fugue (CD review)

Also, Haydn: Variations in F Minor; Schumann: Symphonic Etudes. Emanuel Ax, piano. Sony Classical 88765 42086 7.

At first glance, I couldn’t help thinking of Emanuel Ax as one of the new guard of emerging classical pianists. Then I remembered that his “emergence” was back in the early Seventies, when people were first giving him the recognition he deserved. So, on further reflection, I suppose he has now entered the ranks of the old guard, joining his elder colleagues Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Byron Janis, and the like in the pantheon of great pianists of our day. In any case, it’s always good to hear a new album by Mr. Ax, this time playing three sets of variations by three different composers.

Ax begins the program with possibly the most-famous set of piano variations ever written, Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 35, “Eroica” (1802). The piece got its “Eroica” nickname because the composer based the main theme on that of the final movement of his Third Symphony, the “Eroica” Symphony, a theme Beethoven also used in some of his contredanses and in his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. You might say he knew a good tune when he heard it. Although Beethoven originally planned to include thirty variations, he wound up with fifteen, plus the opening theme and a closing, summary finale, which Ax presents on the disc.

Not surprisingly, given the pianist’s unassuming style, Ax gives us Beethoven in these interpretations rather than Ax. That is, he does not impose any idiosyncratic gestures of his own but keeps the music as close as I imagine Beethoven intended it. The more straightforward Ax plays, the more lovely the music becomes. This is despite the fact that many of the variations are quite exuberant and outgoing, which Ax happily accommodates. Indeed, Ax plays these variations about as well as I have ever heard them played: spirited, nuanced, but never showy in any grand manner. The playing is delightful, the final variation especially touching.

In Joseph Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII:6 (1793) we encounter a musical world apart from Beethoven, one filled with subtle contrasts. The actual variations are not nearly so obvious as Beethoven’s, and the overall impression is one of reserve and restraint. Ax plays them with great refinement, a quiet dignity that is most appealing.

The album closes with Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 (1834-37), which are more Romantic sounding than either the Beethoven or Haydn sets, as we would expect. They also sound more complex, and Ax admits in a booklet note that they are difficult to play. Yet Ax performs them with clarity and polish, each of the variations exploring a different facet of piano playing. As a bonus, Ax includes five variations that Schumann left out of his original series.

Emanuel Ax made these recordings at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, in 2012. The engineers miked the piano at a comfortable distance, so the instrument does not stretch clear across the room; instead, it presents a lifelike width for a listener sitting a moderate distance away. The piano exhibits a dynamic response, a natural, lightly resonant acoustic providing a warm glow on the notes. Still, transients sound quick and sharply detailed, with strong, clear, sparkling impact. In other words, what we get is a most-realistic piano sound.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa