American pianist completes Beethoven marathon in style with a little help from his friends.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

June 20, 2014

Everybody loves a marathon and Emanuel Ax’s Australian long-distance Beethoven-Fest was no exception. With (more than) a little help from his friends David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the American pianist breasted the tape to power across the finishing line in style this weekend in Sydney.

As a prequel, Brett Dean’s new commission Wings of Angels began with barely perceptible flutterings and flutings, and with some distinctly pungent harmonies. With quite a bit of it in six-eight time, the work developed quite a lilt and was beautifully coloured in terms of its orchestration (think Alban Berg). The work built to a couple of powerful climaxes, the first inspiring, the second a militant march, before sinking down into an almost post-coital oblivion complete with epilogue. The large orchestra played and sounded first rate throughout.

Beethoven’s Emperor was his last concerto of any kind and the first piano concerto that his encroaching deafness wouldn’t allow him to play himself – his friend and colleague Carl Czery gave the Viennese premier. Nevertheless, it’s a taxing work for the soloist and, despite being written in a time of siege, it’s more uplifting than militaristic.

As in the the other concerts in this outstanding series, David Robertson placed himself directly behind the piano, as if to say: “watch him, not me” – musical modesty in action, and another superb example of this partnership in action. Robertson gave the sound bags of character – pomp, yes but lyricism too. He’s a tremendous stickler for detail and he shapes phrases with imagination and enormous delicacy. Mellow horns and his neatly arranged phalanx of woodwind acquitted themselves superbly once again. Bassons and trumpets especially deserved to be singled out. The orchestral string sound of the SSO is now a uniform delight.

Emanuel Ax is a most democratic socialist – he uses an ordinary chair and wears an ordinary jacket – his focus is on the orchestra at all times. There isn’t much that I can add to what my colleagues Steve Moffatt and Phillip Scott have said about Ax as a pianist in their reviews of the first two concerts in the series, except to say that Ax delivered the solo part with great naturalness and enormous clarity. His technique is decidedly non-flashy – how welcome that is – yet his ability to make the lines sing with the most subtle touches of rubato here and there is electrifying. His pianos and pianissimos are to die for!

The blockbuster first movement drew a burst of applause, including from conductor David Robertson himself, which must have pleased Mr Ax, the world’s greatest advocate for spontaneous audience reactions. The performance had terrific joy, heart and a sense of pleasure – it was fantastic to see an orchestra in motion, sharing collusive smiles between themselves, conductor and soloist.

The dream like Adagio was exquisitely played by the SSO strings, warm and gentle, providing the perfect bed on which Ax could lay down his gossamer piano line. What followed was seven minutes of pure magic before the side step into Beethoven’s bravura finale, Ax all Viennese grace and charm. Robertson gave it just the right degree of (almost militaristic) bounce, and Ax responded with panache and spirit, exhibiting the perfect balance between left and right hand that has been such a feature of his playing throughout the series. The retreating drum before the final flourish was most effectively realised and the crowd erupted with pleasure, giving Emanuel (marathon man) Ax a well-deserved ovation, not just for this one, but for three superb concerts in a row.

It would take a lot to top the soloist’s achievements over the last week, but if anything might stand a chance, it would be Richard Strauss’s bombastic tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) celebrating… well, himself really. The work features a massive orchestra in a hymn of praise to the artist (or hero) and a great big thumbed-nose to his detractors.

After all that classical poise and modesty it was an abrupt change, but Robertson had a few ideas to ease us into the tone poem in a less noisy way than is sometimes the case. He gave the strings their head, but frequently held back on the brass at the outset giving inner parts the chance to cut through and saving the really heroic sound for the final thematic statement leading into the infamous ‘detractors’ section.

All that musical carping was delivered with real wit before shifting into the gloom of an insecure artist’s beleaguered musical ego. Gorgeous solos by concertmaster Andrew Haveron gave the hero’s hyper-capricious wife greater interest than can sometimes be the case – this was sparkling, characterful playing. The big romantic climax was perhaps a little less syrupy than it might be – dare I say that if there’s a pudding worth over egging, it’s Heldenleben – but the return of the niggling naysayers and the arrival of the offstage trumpets was suitably magical. The battle was thrillingly pacey and positively Stravinskian in its precision – and yes, here Robertson did indeed look encouragingly at the brass!

The hero’s retirement that followed was rich and rather noble, the orchestra lovingly balanced to allow each instrument its moment in the sunset. The final nightmarish stirrings were most atmospheric before Herr Strauss was tucked in by Pauline and we were all wished a warm “gute nacht” with a burnished horn solo.