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Review: Emanuel Ax plays Beethoven

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 10:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 10:51am

Emanuel Ax plays Beethoven
Hong Kong Philharmonic
HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Reviewed: May 31

Whatever plan was negotiated between the distinguished pianist Emanuel Ax and noted conductor Carlo Rizzi for this performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No4, it wasn't good enough.

The slow middle movement is the least problematic. Soloist and orchestra go their separate ways in a short question-and-answer episode; the orchestra growls at a whimpering piano, before succumbing to its gentler example. The two movements flanking this artless interlude, however, demand much more musical imagination and integration.

Conductor and soloist may have been performing the same piece, but they were in parallel universes most of the time. Rizzi's packaging of the principal melodic material of the first movement lacked characterisation, subtleties of balance and phrasing. Ax seemed dulled by the prosaic experience: his cadenza sounded emotionally frigid, simply reeling off the notes with unusual superficiality.

The other work in the programme was Ravel's complete score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, his longest composition, coming in at about an hour. It's a risky piece to programme, despite the fact that the huge forces required are impressive on the eye.

Without the trappings of a theatre performance, the burden rests on the conductor to coax a sustained stream of ravishing sounds from fleeting episodes that are played without a break. It's a tall order. The music gives little idea of the storyline, inspired by ancient Greece, that normally plays out through the dancing. A concert has to compensate with a finesse of sound that continually hooks the ear.

Rizzi gave a technically tight performance that was short on such magic, save for solo passages (notably from principal flautist Megan Sterling). The 130 voices of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus provided the wordless choral sections with an impressively cultured sound and tightness in delivery.

Sam Olluver

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