Sunday, April 05, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Ax Plays Brahms

It is a pleasure watching and hearing renowned pianist Emanuel Ax perform. No mannerisms, no banging and clanging, no extremes of tempi and mood; just solid, musical and thrilling performances. As something, not fully explained, went haywire with the previously announced selection, the world premiere of Steven Hartke's Piano Concerto, Ax and Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern elected to give us one of the pillars of the piano concerto repertoire, the Brahms D-minor, # 1.

I have annoyed many of my fellow music lovers by stating that I tend to avoid Brahms as I find many of his works heavy and sometimes tedious. But the D-minor is a grand, demanding and powerful work and I give it a listen now and then. Ax provided a suitable grand and powerful performance. The energy of the orchestra did flag a bit in the massive 1st movement, but only a bit and certainly not enough to ruin the movement at all. Credit goes to Stern for carefully shaping and executing Brahms' difficult to balance orchestration. The melancholy second was lyrical, frequently meditative (especially the orchestral introduction taking on the guise of a simple chorale-prayer) and flowing, Ax neatly integrating the piano into the fabric but at the same time keeping it in the forefront.

Ax launched into the dramatic finale, plunging ahead with power and grace to the shattering climax of mighty octave chords, echoed by the orchestra. Here again, the orchestra showed it was lagging in energy a bit, the shattering effect of this grand climax just a tad off and un-synchronized. The solo's many trills and runs were always clear, the grand chords powerful but never banging and thus with a few minor misses, this was a grand performance. The audience repeatedly showed its appreciation.

The second half was devoted to the well known Beethoven Symphony # 6, the Pastoral. Stern led Beethoven through a leisurely stroll through the woods, enjoying the fresh country air recreated through some wonderful wind work and delightful bird call imitations. The brook they came upon was hardly a roaring stream but a gently flowing one. The peasants of the village they happened upon danced merrily and rustically, and if the sudden storm hardly warranted a warning from the National Weather Service, it certainly made its presence known. The wind and thunder soon abated with a wonderfully executed diminuendo and the peasants celebrated with a songful prayer of quiet ecstasy.

As mentioned above, the KCS winds outdid themselves with some delicate and always spot on work as is required in this wind instrument dominated work. Well done.

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