No doubt about it--Emanuel Ax possesses one of the fastest, surest and best-controlled sets of fingers in the world of piano playing. His recital in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Tuesday night was at once astonishing, exciting, soporific, maddening and enlightening. It was often like a three-ring circus--sometimes too much to take in all at once.
In the first half of the program, Ax worked as a miniaturist. A Haydn Sonata in F (replacing two originally scheduled Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich) was etched with immaculate clarity and refined charm. On his best days, a pianist such as Murray Perahia might approach this transparency and microscopic phrasing. It was a feat, a stunt maybe, but Ax justified it in purely musical terms.
After that, one wondered why a pianist of such special capabilities should be interested in Brahms' long and unwieldy Sonata No. 3, in F minor. The expected Brahmsian sonority was shallow, the Brahmsian sentiment too facile to be at all moving. Just what kind of pianist is this, one might have asked.
Then came a half-program of Chopin and all questions were answered. One does not have to agree with all of Ax's versions to admit that he produces a basic Chopin style. Here, it rippled, it sang, it delved lightly in morbidezza , flowered into bravura without coarseness or harshness. At this point, it is not surprising to read that Ax was born in Poland.
Sometimes his imagination and his taste for individual expression betrayed him by leading him into needless liberties. The "Polonaise-Fantaisie" profited from the pianist's exploratory freedom and his search for buried nuances. Four Mazurkas went a bit far, even granting the rightness of the approach. It all came together in a magical "Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise" in E-flat of dazzling bravura. The audience cheered. Even in this day of pianistic wonders, one does not often hear such reckless but perfect abandon.
The sole encore was "Des Abends," the first of Schumann's "Phantasiestucke."