Clap your hands (and say ‘yeah!’) for classical music at Yale

If anyone wanted proof that the piano recital is alive and well — as surely all college students do — they need have looked no further than Sprague Hall last Wednesday night. Emanuel Ax, the masterful and consistently uncompromising pianist, provided a meaty program of Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok to a brimming and enthusiastic audience. The concert was an auspicious beginning to Yale’s Horowitz Piano Series, a year-long procession of big-name artists at Sprague.

A hobbit-like physique and genial stage presence belie the grace and power Ax brings to the piano. The opening Beethoven sonata (Op. 2 No. 2) is a studied effort in virtuosity and large-scale structure. It owes much to Mozart and Beethoven’s teacher Haydn, and one constantly feels the composer striving to exceed his mentors.

The music is endlessly inventive, full of exuberant contrasts of light and shade. Ax’s performance was effortless and profound. The second movement, with its dolorous melody over a pizzicato bass, and the zippy last movement, were especially outstanding.

Great pianists like Ax have their own characteristic sounds — he draws a weighty and sonorous yet perfectly rounded tone from the instrument. His range, from monumental to intimate, was perfectly illustrated by his performance of Brahms’s Op. 10 Ballades. This early work was a well-chosen compliment to the Beethoven — both show the composers as young firebrands eager to explore and display their talents.

The Ballades are also blase about their influence; Robert Schumann’s famous piano cycles are right on the surface. But the music has that Brahmsian stout-heartedness, and none of the empty bombast that mars his preceding works. In Ax’s hands, the Ballades sounded alternately lyrical and heroic. Each unexpected harmonic twist was a delight.

For the core of Wednesday’s concert, Bartok’s masterly Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Ax was assisted by three fine musicians. His wife Yoko Nozaki joined him on the second piano; Don Liuzzi and Ayano Kataoka MUS ’05 darted among the multitude of percussion instruments. The unprecedented combination could easily have sounded chaotic. Because all the instruments have a sharp, percussive attack (as opposed to strings, which fade gracefully in and out), the ensemble’s tightness was key.

Ax and Nozaki synchronized with inhuman perfection (especially considering they were arranged back-to-back). The percussion section was just as accurate, though the pounding timpani tended to overpower the two concert grands. Purists would surely scoff, but subtle amplification of the pianos would have been welcome.

But more disturbing was the inequality of the pianists’ timbres. Nozaki’s thin, somewhat brittle sound was no match for her husband’s power. But despite this flaw, the spirited performance marked a rare opportunity to hear this difficult work live.

It’s too bad that pianists in the Horowitz Series are compelled to play its namesake’s old concert grand, an instrument that is noticeably inferior to the Hamburg-born Steinway that also lives in the hall. But this season seems as promising as ever.

The venerable Peter Frankl celebrates his 70th birthday Oct. 14 — an occasion that calls for lots and lots of Mozart. Next, the Russian pianist Tigran Alikhanov, rarely heard in the States, will perform Mussorgsky’s classic “Pictures at an Exhibition” Dec. 7; come 2006, we’ll hear the legendary Claude Frank and Boris Berman’s Shostakovich.

Though Ax and his brethren may hog the limelight, Michael Friedmann’s piano recitals are a guaranteed highlight of Yale’s concert season. Friedmann, by profession a theorist in Yale College, can be a reluctant performer. He only ventures on-stage when he has important business. This year, it’s Schonberg’s complete piano works, half of which he played last Friday. The second comes Jan. 13.

Friedmann is a Schonberg specialist, and it shows. His interpretations remove the shroud of incomprehensibility from what many consider impenetrably opaque music. But what really elevates these performances is Friedmann’s style, which is wildly different from any other pianist I’ve seen. Sitting at the keyboard, he is coiled, yet relaxed, like a large, nimble bird.

The music seems to send pulses through him. In an expansive passage, he’ll lean back dangerously far on the bench, only to lunge back suddenly inward. But it is not flamboyance — his theatricality communicates the composer’s wild, volatile musical landscape.

The second half of Friday’s program was devoted to Schubert’s enormous A major sonata. The grandeur and milquetoast sentiment often summoned for this giant were tossed aside, replaced with an elastic tempo and mood that brought out its influence on Schonberg. Though lacking technical polish, especially in the slow movement’s furious middle section, Friedmann’s playing was original and affecting.

The difference of approach from Ax’s couldn’t have been more stark — but sometimes it doesn’t take a big name to make for a genuinely satisfying musical experience.

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