As soon as Emanuel Ax stepped onto the Zellerbach Hall stage, the anxiously chattering crowd quieted down, took their seats and burst into boisterous applause. The concert hall was filled to the brim for the world-renowned Polish pianist on Nov. 13, a testament to the artist’s acclaim. Even before the performance began, the energy gauge was at the top of the dial as the crowd anticipated the gift of the musical eminence before them.
Ax began the evening with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2. This specific performance reminded one of the difference between simply listening to music and hearing it live. Ax played with such graceful athleticism, his performance was a whole spectacle to the eyes in and of itself. The way his fingers struck and slid on the piano keys was reminiscent of how a ballplayer covetously holds on to the ball but also how elegantly it slips from his fingers. His movements were short and graceful, which complemented well the quiet and unassuming chords of Beethoven’s piece.
In fact, Ax dedicated more than half of his performance to Beethoven. He followed that first beautifully disposed Sonata in A major with Beethoven’s “Pathetique.” He started slowly, accentuating the tragic buildup at the end. His vibrant fingers almost give a separate performance, from their slow, sedate movements resembling ballet dance to their abrupt strikes that wrestled with the keys. It only serves to amp up the dramatic flavor of the sonata, adequately called “Pathetique.” Yet even Ax’s rousing rendition could not prepare us for the solemnity that would follow in the finale.
Ax rounded up the night with a stunning rendition of Franz Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major. The poetic utterance put the audience into a hypnotic state. All eyes and ears were on Ax. But if the crowd’s attention had been on Ax’s graceful fingers before Schubert, the attention had shifted to his face. There was something noticeably different this time around. Ax seemed to connect with Schubert at a more personal and emotional level, evident both in his highly pronounced facial expression and the sheer vigor of his playing. It was one swift escalation after another — a heart-pumping experience that ended in masterful, triumphant presto. As soon as the last note faded — the audience hunched over at the edge of the seats — the crowd sprang into a standing ovation.
Given the immense complexity of Schubert and the effortless ease with which Ax approached his work, Ax’s performance was a testament to his expertise and romance with the piano. Overall, the performance was a joy: the thrumming pulses of the sonatas, the flawless presto of the Allegro, the cold, grim chill of the finale and Ax’s simplistic humanity. With Ax, every note, every key-strike is a performance in and of itself.