Powerful blows from the Ax man

Emanuel Ax | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Few pianists could talk to an audience in as relaxed and as modestly good-natured a way as Emanuel Ax. Making a virtue of a slight rearrangement in his programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday, he also explained how three composers - Ravel, Debussy and George Benjamin - arrived at a musical motif based on the name of Haydn. Some people would rather have the performer keep his distance, preserving a mystique, and there was something a bit too urbane about the first half of Ax's recital. Perhaps it was the way he played Haydn's A flat Sonata, Hb 46, with a creamy legato in the first movement, a caressing touch in the slow one, and a streamlined ease as he dispatched the finale at top speed.

It's only in relatively recent years that Haydn has been acknowledged as intellectually tough, not merely delightful. Whether Ravel found that in Haydn's music, his Minuet on Haydn's name is a slow, sensuous waltz, and utterly hedonistic. Debussy's "Hommage" is more elusive, almost sly to begin, then waxing to a threatening climax before slipping back to its initial character. Benjamin's "Meditation" of 1982 is very quiet and still, a tinkling study in delicate harmonies which suited Ax's melting touch perfectly.

Ax softened the edges, too, in Debussy's "Estampes", understating the strong wiry thread underpinning their flickering surface; he caught their refined sonorities, yet it was the final and leanest piece, "Jardins sous la pluie", which he brought off with the greatest aplomb. He also delivered a crisp account of "L'isle joyeuse" - a tone poem in a few minutes - and filled out its ecstatic climax with an easy command of the richest tone.

He didn't leave us in much doubt, either, of his copious reserves of strength at the start of Schumann's "Carnaval", though he didn't quite capture the capricious charm or fizz of the earlier numbers. About halfway through, with "Chiarina" and "Chopin", his enthusiasm seemed suddenly to return, and "Reconnaissance" was charming, "Aveu" delicate, and the final "Marche" went straight for its target.

He chose his encores well, too, and floated Chopin's "Berceuse" at a more than usually flowing tempo while managing all its right-hand decoration comfortably, then sweeping us off our feet with the grand E flat Waltz.