America’s premier classical pianist, Emmanuel Ax, was on the Lied Center for Performing Arts mainstage Sunday afternoon. Ax has a long pedigree which embraces school honors at Juilliard, numerous Grammys and classical music awards.

Two Brahms “Rhapsodies” from Opus 79 opened the recital. Decisive attacks and perfect fingering made the pieces elegant and well declaimed.

The simple approach worked for the George Benjamin “Piano Figures (2004).” The works were created for young students. Ax spoke of the composition with admiration, then added his mastery to the artful Benjamin pieces.

Extreme sensitivity was felt in the playing of Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke”, eight pieces that are intricate yet emotionally taxing. Ax navigated his way through the tuneful, wistful melodies, matching both the elegant and the decisive Schumann passages.

Maurice Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” followed intermission. Ax’s arms moved like necks of graceful swans in running through the accidentals and sweeping phrases of the “Valses,” all of which found perfection in flawless keyboard artistry.

For the Ravel work, Ax brought his hands and arms into the air like necks of graceful swans to emote with the composer’s moods. Yet when fortissimo power was demanded, there were no flailing arms, no key-banging, only the sustained strength the 65-year veteran of the piano poured into his instrument.

Ax, with a Polish family history, appears at his best with Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s works. The extensive “Nocturne in B Major, Opus 62, No. 1” received flawless, sustained phrasing and got gracious, sustained applause.

The “Three Mazurkas” from Opus 50 followed, flaunting the push-and-pull rubato that characterizes these native Polish dances.

Ax saved the best for last. Chopin’s “Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major, Opus 22”, was put together when the composer had been invited to perform at the prestigious Haberneck Conservatory Concerts in Paris.

The Andante flowed like soft moonlight on a quiet lake, then the soaring Polonaise Brillante took off like a jet plane bound for Warsaw. Perfect execution brought the Lied crowd of 650 to their feet with bravos and whistles.

Ax, smiling, bowed in recognition. After the third bow, Ax returned to the keyboard for a quiet encore, the Chopin “Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Opus 15, No. 2.”

Patrons got their money’s worth in this elegant concert by America’s premier classical pianist. It was an extraordinary afternoon at the Lied.


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