Emanuel Ax closes Shriver Hall season with brilliant Brahms-centric program

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Some pianists become narrower -- in terms of repertoire, that is -- as they grow older. They stick contentedly with, say, a Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert diet, or maybe just big helpings of Rachmaninoff and Liszt. More disturbingly, some young keyboard players restrict themselves to a few composers or eras early on.

By contrast, Emanuel Ax, whose career has been going strong for four decades, just keeps getting more open and inquisitive. This pianist's comfort zone doesn't seem to have any boundaries at all. He brought examples of that adventurous spirit with him to Baltimore Sunday evening for a season-closing recital presented by Shriver Hall Concert Series.


The program, which he will perform Thursday at Carnegie Hall, is Brahms-centric with a twist. That twist comes from the inclusion of pieces inspired by Brahms and written for Ax last year by Brett Dean and Missy Mazzoli.

In the case of Dean's "Hommage a Brahms," the new material is intermingled with the four, often bittersweet pieces of Brahms' Op. 119. The effect proved quite engrossing on Sunday. It was as if the works were speaking to each other across a century-plus divide, seeking answers to old questions or fresh perspectives on deep feelings and concerns.


Dean's music, with its moderate dissonance and subtle tone coloring, was sensitively molded by Ax. He brought out the wistful imagery of the two feathery-textured pieces titled "Engelsflugel" (a suggestion of angel's wings), and brought the edgier mood of "Hafenkneipenmusik" (conjuring up sounds from the sort of dockside pubs Brahms frequented) into fine relief.

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Needless to say, the pianist shaped the alternating Brahms items with superb technical precision and expressive shading; they sounded spontaneous, vital, personal.

Mazzoli's contribution, "Bolts of Loving Thunder," reveals her distinctive blend of minimalist and pop/rock idioms, here merged with an ardent, Brahms-rooted lyricism. Ax articulated the propulsive score with great rhythmic precision and a vibrant tone.

Serving as bookends to the program were two meaty works by Brahms.

This composer's piano sonatas have never been as popular as his concertos and shorter solo keyboard works (the same can be said of Schumann, Grieg and Tchaikovsky). The F-sharp minor Sonata is not easy to cozy up to, what with its super-stormy, Liszt-worthy passages and heavy thematic development. But Ax's remarkable clarity and incisive phrasing made a compelling case for it.

In the 25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Brahms showed off every trick in his arsenal, both in terms of compositional creativity and exploitation of the piano's possibilities.

Ax seized on the challenge. He didn't just play the heck out of it, but found a wealth of expressive nuance along the way, notably by often putting the subtlest little differences of phrasing or dynamics in the repeats of the variations.

The masterful concert, capped by a Brahms Intermezzo as an encore, reconfirmed Ax's stature as a keyboard artist, not to mention the continued importance of the Shriver Hall Concert Series to Baltimore's cultural well-being.