Pianist Emanuel Ax makes powerful statements with modesty and elegance

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Despite the noise coming out of Washington, it is possible to make a powerful statement without resort to boast, bluster and swagger.

Consider Emanuel Ax. His piano recital Saturday night as a benefit for the Literacy Network of South Berkshire (LitNet) was a testament to how modesty and elegance can express deeply held values more eloquently than the loudest insult or shout. (And isn't conviction about one's place in society one marker of literacy?)

Before a nearly sold-out Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center audience, the New York-West Stockbridge pianist played a concise program in which Mozart and Beethoven shook hands across two short pieces by Liszt. To precede the musical business, LitNet President Lucy Prashker and executive director Jennifer Vrabel paid tribute to the agency's tutors and students, calling on those in the audience to stand for recognition.

Ax played a warm-toned, lovingly restored Steinway grand whose use for the occasion was donated by Aram and Seth deKoven. The instrument seemed finely compatible with the pianist's personality.

The evening's surprise was not Mozart's underperformed Sonata No. 15 (K. 533, a reworking of the Rondo, K. 494) nor Ax's restraint in Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata (Opus 53). Rather, two Liszt settings of sonatas by Petrarch in praise of his beloved Laura flowed lovingly from a pianist not normally associated with Liszt.

No matter. The two "Sonetti di Petrarca" were in Liszt's "Liebestraum" (Love's Dream) mode, and Ax played them dreamily, lyrically and occasionally impetuously, as befits the love poems they once were. (In a brief talk to the audience, Ax noted that Liszt had also set the poems for voice. He said listeners would be delighted to know he wouldn't sing the songs. (Modesty also becomes this pianist's humor.)

Duly celebrated for his Mozart, Ax played the opening sonata with his trademark imagination and crystalline textures. That is, the answering and opposing lines stood out clearly in their own right yet always spoke to and reinforced one another.

The first movement's surprise ending left you pleasantly in suspense. The second movement was like a voyage to a distant galaxy. The finale was serious fun, with the rondo theme popping in and out like a peek or a grin.               

In the "Waldstein," Ax seemed unduly restrained - especially in the finale - in comparison with the more common blood-and-thunder approach. The French have a theory that this sonata, from Beethoven's middle period, is the story of a day: bright daylight in the first movement and whispering night in the second, out of which dawn slowly emerges.                                                                                                                                                                

Probably Ax was not thinking French. Probably he merely played the music the way he hears it. In either case, he played it with vision and honesty, which is what you expect of either a musician or a politician. The transition into dawn — if dawn it be — was magical. A Chopin waltz served as an encore.

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