February 19, 2004

Emanuel Ax Steals the Show with John Adams's Piano Concerto

Special concert on the occasion of the opening of "MoMA in Berlin"


John Adams »Century Rolls« for piano and orchestra

Maurice Ravel Daphnis et Chloé, ballet in three parts


Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle - Conductor

Rundfunkchor Berlin
Simon Halsey - preparation

Emanuel Ax - Piano

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Emanuel Ax Steals the Show with John Adams's Piano Concerto

Special concert on the occasion of the opening of "MoMA in Berlin"

by Nancy Chapple

Emanuel Ax

John Adams's 1997 piano concerto, Century Rolls, was inspired by listening to piano rolls from the 1920's: he wanted to "recreate that initial impulse I got from hearing the piano sound through the medium of the piano roll." He wrote it with Emanuel Ax in mind; the pianist premiered and recorded it with the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi. In this performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle, it felt like Ax took over: mastering the devilishly difficult work and keeping in constant contact with the conductor to ensure it would all fit together, playing silently along with the rhythm in the left hand until his next entrance. He played with the score, using it like a well-prepared chamber musician, turning his own pages and monitoring the piece overall. The orchestra had learned the notes, but hadn't internalized it in the same way; sometimes they were too loud, sometimes slightly unrhythmical. The first movement is immediately engrossing, with a beat one can't quite tap one's feet along with: the number of bars per phrase keeps changing, and the action keeps starting after the beat. Though the use of repeated motives is reminiscent of Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, changes in the patterns come within a much more compressed time period. The second movement, Manny's Gym, is gentle jazz, with a paraphrase of a Satie Gymnopédie in the middle. It gave Ax lots of opportunities to show off his singing tone. In the bebop Hail Bop third movement, too, you can swing along (and the principal viola and trumpeters definitely did so), but you can't quite find the beat. At one point, the xylophone, trumpets and upper register of the piano really let loose. Rattle, Ax and Adams took many bows together.

The second half of the concert, in which the orchestra was joined by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, consisted of Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. The heavenly choir sings certain high notes wordlessly, enhancing the orchestral color with a special sheen. The orchestra came into its own here, with the typically warm Philharmonic vibrato in the strings slowly building up in intensity, the choir providing the icing on the cake at climaxes. The orchestra worked more closely with Rattle, and seemed more inside the piece. In a recent Berlin press conference, Rattle described his orchestra as "the one that moves the most of all orchestras in the world" - and that seemed quite true here, as when the violas all leaned together in a big crescendo. The instrumentalists all phrased beautifully, but one could single out marvelous solos in the cello, violin, contrabassoon, English horn, and the 1st and especially 2nd flute. Once again, Hans Scharoun's Philharmonie was set to great advantage: a trumpeter appeared high above the right side of the stage, a French hornist on the left, and the effect was dramatic, both visually and acoustically. When a ballet is performed in concert, it can sound like scenes have been strung together - and in fact, we did miss the dancers in this version. The piece consisted of many waves of emotion - but it was hard to know where one was without following the four pages of scenic description printed in the program. The piece wound up on one of the many high points, and the audience applauded appreciatively.

(This review originally appeared at www.classicstoday.com)