Ax’s first of three thrills Sydney, combining power and attack with exquisite delicacy and pinpoint articulation.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

June 13, 2014

Mozart knew he had a hit on his hands when he heard an apprentice in the street whistling tunes from The Marriage of Figaro. Beethoven probably felt the same after he played his Piano Concerto No 2 at his Viennese debut in 1795, if this first of the Emanuel Ax series with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson is anything to go by. The interval crowd was happily whistling the jaunty rondo as they made their way to the Opera House bars.

Robertson launched the three-concert package rightly with the Op 19 B Flat work as it predates what we now know as the No 1. Beethoven delayed publishing it, revising it and dismissing it as a work “worth 10 ducats”. Judging by Ax’s superb handling of this refreshing and unpretentious concerto it’s hard to see why the composer was so dissatisfied.

Both concertos feature a brilliant opening movement with extended cadenzas in which Beethoven lays out his wares as a composer and as a pianist. The B Flat concerto’s cadenza, believed to have been written later for Beethoven’s pupil the Archduke Rudolf, is wonderful in itself, ranging over several minutes with quick changes of key, tempo and dynamic. But it was the simple cadenza in the following slow movement, which Ax pegged back almost to a whisper, that held the audience spellbound.

The 65-year-old Ukrainian born American was equally commanding in the C Major Op 15 concerto in the second half. Working happily with the SSO’s chief conductor Robertson, Ax is a genial presence on the stage, totally engaged with his fellow musicians and not given to grand gestures, apart from sweeping back his grey forelock from time to time. He eschews the piano stool for an ergonomic seat similar to those used by the orchestra. This is a performer totally in control of his material, combining power and attack with exquisite delicacy and pinpoint articulation. He is also no stranger to Australia, playing Beethoven here in 2002 and Mozart in 2008.

Robertson has already established himself as a favourite with audiences for his vision and audacity in concerts featuring Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Verdi’s Requiem, as well as a concert version of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman complete with videos. His adventurous programming is winning him plenty of admirers. For this concert he chose an entertaining curtain opener in Paul Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings, not heard here since Edo de Waart conducted it in 1995. The orchestra was in top form for this, sounding strong and warm in the strings and pitch perfect in the brass section.

The Beethoven series is shaping up to be one of the highlights on the SSO’s 2014 calendar.

This concert is repeated on Saturday, June 14, at 8pm. Ax and Robertson present Beethoven 3 & 4 on Monday, June 16, at 7pm and Wednesday, June 18, at 8pm; and Beethoven’s Emperor, coupled with Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, on Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 21, both at 8pm.