Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
February 2, 2018

Mozart might be the headliner of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s A Mozart Celebration, three programmes showcasing the composer’s work beginning with Dramatic Mozart, but it’s really pianist Emanuel Ax who is at the heart of the festival.

The Polish-born American pianist last performed with the orchestra in 2014 when he came out for a Beethoven concerto cycle with SSO Chief David Robertson. He’s back four years later to do it all again, this time with six of Mozart’s concertos, which he’ll perform with the SSO over the next two weeks. This is familiar territory for Ax and Robertson, who performed a very similar series of concerts with Robertson’s other band, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, in September last year.

Dramatic MozartEmanuel Ax, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Dramatic Mozart. Photo © Daniela Testa

Ax kicked off the concertos with one of the more neglected of Mozart’s piano concertos, No 14 in E Flat, K449, which the composer wrote in Vienna in 1784 for his student Barbara Ployer. While the Allegro vivace, in three, begins with an elegant playfulness, there is also fire enough – which Robertson made sure to highlight – for it to fit the Dramatic theme of the concert. But it was Ax’s subtle and characterful attention to phrasing that set the work alight, the pianist giving the music a rolling forward momentum and a clarity that never wavered. Ax’s fluid approach to rubato saw him pressing forward in the Andantino while the bass lines he spot lit with his left-hand crept forward in the sunny third. This was a performance full of personality, especially in the finale, where the prettily ornamented interjections and  flirtations with minor keys gave way to buzzing climaxes and ultimately the tripping six-eight passage that brings the work to a close. While there were moments, as Ax pushed forward, when the orchestra wasn’t quite quick enough on its feet, the rapport between soloist and ensemble was obvious and it will be rewarding, I’m sure, to see this relationship deepen over the next few concerts.

Dramatic MozartEmanuel Ax, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Dramatic Mozart. Photo © Daniela Testa

The drama ramped up a notch after the interval with the brooding opening of what is perhaps the most popular of Mozart’s concertos, No 20 in D minor, K466 – written a year after K449. The SSO’s lower strings were in fine form, delivering elastic upward flicks against the orchestra’s dark pulsing before Ax joined, his delicate piano entry becoming ever firmer under his fingers, twisting into spiralling ascents, potent accents and gleaming ornamentation. His lines were clean and shapely in the second movement while the finale saw the orchestra following soloist with a fizzing energy, horns smouldering. Beethoven’s cadenza in the first movement (Beethoven performed this concerto ten years after its composition, in a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow Constanze) brought another wonderful personality into the mix, while Ax used Hummel’s richly flashy cadenza in the third movement.

The concertos were very much the main event, but they were bookended by the Overture to Don Giovanni and Symphony No 40, giving the programme a slightly unwieldy, middle-heavy feel. That said, the Overture and Symphony were dispatched with plenty of energy and verve. Robertson employed relatively large forces for these – the basses, arrayed on the left, felt particularly hearty – and with the lower strings emphasised, the harmonic pulse underlying the busier violins in the iconic opening of the Symphony was given greater weight and the muscular accents in the Menuetto given an added potency. Robertson imbued the finale with fierce energy, the strings crisp and defined from the tip-toeing softs to the snappy fortes. With such orchestral fireworks on display, the Mozart Celebration is off to an exciting start.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s A Mozart Celebration continues with Seductive Mozart February 5 – 7 and Magnificant Mozart February 9 – 10.