Minnesota Orchestra concert finds pianist Emanuel Ax at the height of his powers
Although his career as a concert pianist spanned almost half a century, Emanuel Ax never acted like a star. When he takes the stage to invariably enthusiastic applause, Ax always acts a little bewildered, as if embarrassed by adulation.
But then he demonstrates why he is one of America’s most respected pianists, delivering emotional performances that light up unexpected places, often to familiar repertoire.
Works like Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the centerpiece of this weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts. On Friday night, Ax picked up some music that many in the near-large crowd at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis surely thought they knew well, and found new ground to cultivate in the 213-year-old concerto. He can act unpretentiously, but Ax seemed extremely confident in the way he wanted to channel Beethoven’s thoughts and emotions.
It was the climax of a rewarding concert, and to say that, as the evening ended with a nearly hour-long journey through one of the darkest nights in Dmitri’s soul. Shostakovich, his 10th symphony, a deeply gripping and ultimately emotionally draining piece of music. . But German conductor David Afkham and the orchestra maintained their intensity admirably, rightly earning the second standing ovation of the evening.
The first went to Ax, who has always impressed with his smooth transitions between dynamic extremes. While Afkham intended to cause explosions of sound that orchestras of Beethoven’s day could not muster, Ax was always there to bring things back to softer ground. The pianist engaged in warm exchanges with the woodwind soloists of the orchestra and turned out to be captivating during a vast unaccompanied interlude within the slow movement.
But it was a long cadence of first movement that showed Ax at the height of his powers. He picked up the opening theme of the concerto, bundled it around like an echo chamber, then threw it in all kinds of interesting directions: smooth, powerful, complex, simple, and, ultimately, peaceful.
Beethoven got another nod with the concert’s opening work, the US premiere of Unsuk Chin’s “Subito con Forza”. Written in honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the piece slips familiar snippets from his music into his unpredictable musical collage.
If the Beethoven symphonies became a specialty of the Minnesota Orchestra during the time of Osmo Vänskä, the ensemble is also quite expert in those of Shostakovich. His 10th can be pretty relentless in its obscurity, especially in a first-movement struggle between desperation and a hardened survivor’s sense of triumph. The composer’s individuality was affirmed in the melancholy clarinet of Gabriel Campos Zamora and the sad but resonant French horn calls of Michael Gast.
Composed in 1953 after the death of Shostakovich’s nemesis, Josef Stalin, the 10th Symphony sounds like a war-weary work, the opening movement akin to a march through desolate ruins while the second evokes a raging military march. While I was wondering if Afkham was pushing the volume levels to the max too often, he turned things around by doing a delicate Allegretto dance.
As for the finale, it may have given a glimpse of the sun, but there’s a reason music historians have been scratching their heads for almost 70 years: It seems completely incongruous with what came before. Nonetheless, the Minnesota Orchestra performed it expertly, bolstering his growing reputation as a powerful Shostakovich.
Rob Hubbard is an independent classical music critic. • email@example.com