Walter Waugaman
Posted on Sat, Apr. 17, 2010

Beautiful, if not bold, Beethoven from Ax; polish from the orchestra

By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Unfailingly genial and totally lacking any sense of struggle, Emanuel Ax's playing is nothing if not equanimity in sound. The pianist is always pleasant. He's expressive, but conveys a sense that to be too expressive would be an imposition on the listener.

He's well liked in the way Itzhak Perlman is, mostly for his musicianship and stage persona of quiet mirth, and for being generous to good causes. In these parts he has extra resonance as one-third of the trio (with Perelman and Yo-Yo Ma) that opened Verizon Hall in 2001, as Thursday night's audience might have remembered as Ax returned for more Beethoven.

This time it was the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and if you'd never heard the concerto played with discovery and risk-taking, it might never have occurred to you that Ax disregarded these potentialities. No great drama came in the long first-movement cadenza; manipulation of phrasing in the second movement was doled out carefully, tastefully; the third showed only a modicum of original interpretive impulses. It was lovely, gentle playing, the kind that makes you lean forward in your seat seeking more, even if in vain.

There was ease, too, in the orchestra - in Stravinsky's Petrushka, of all places. But this countenance was of a different brand altogether, bragging a virtuosity that tricks the audience into thinking it was no trick at all. It's true these players have been working over Petrushka parts in excerpt books since high school. But that's no guarantee of conquest in performance. Thursday's outing with Stravinsky's original (larger) version of the score was almost miraculous for its extremely high level of technique and polish.

That's the Dutoit factor. The orchestra's chief conductor has presented himself as the oracle of a certain Franco-Russian repertoire, and while you may quibble about whether he uncovers certain truths unavailable to other conductors, the integrity of his ensemble work is unassailable. His Ravel Mother Goose Suite offered no revelations, either in reshaping phrasings or balancing voices to yield previously unrealized colors. Cool it was, and neatly packaged.
But Dutoit created a comfortable enough environment in Petrushka to promote exactitude and expressive freedom. The revolution is all Stravinsky's - the unbearably bright hues, the sound of a multitude of instruments quivering simultaneously, the ghostly evocation of a mocking puppet at the end (not to mention the piece's celebrated bitonality).

The impact, though (high clarinets, trombones, and muted trumpets handling contents under pressure, an exposed tuba gliding over the rest of the ensemble) was all the orchestra. These spots and dozens of others never suggested how treacherous this music is, leaving the listener in the glow of ignorance of the best kind.
Posted on 18 Apr 2010, 2:30 AM