Emanuel Ax is the aficionado to look to for all things Brahms. After sensationally whipping through Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.83 with a light touch that still communicated the thickness inherent to Brahms’ style, Ax turned to the Houston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, rather than to the audience (who had leapt cheering to its feet), and bowed to the other musicians as his collaborators, not accompanists. Ax exhibited both the allure of the enchanted soloist and the collaborative air of chamber musician. In comparison, the preceding program item, Ives' Symphony No. 2, was remarkably unremarkable. 

Emanuel Ax © Marie Mazzucco | Sony
Emanuel Ax
© Marie Mazzucco | Sony

Watching Ax play, you might wonder how such an unassuming man became the expert on Brahms – the heady, emotional, weighty wonder of the Romantic era. In a brief interview before he began, Ax admitted he still gets nervous before performing; yet, I wondered as his fingers darted over an early diminished arpeggio that spanned the keyboard effortlessly, how could this be? The concerto is famous for being tremendously difficult. It demands fiendish dexterity and technical machismo. In addition to its high-maintenance construction, it asks a performer to infuse each note with passion and to make phrases lyrical, light, and majestic. Ax did all this, and perhaps more, without emoting an ounce of nervousness. He wiped his brow at a few points, but this seemed relatively reasonable. More often during rests, he was bobbing his head genially at the orchestra.

Although the concerto features several chamber-like moments, its overall structure looks more like a symphony, making Ax’s balancing act as humble and charismatic even more remarkable. The concerto begins with the piano responding to a solo horn, for example, and later, the principal cellist winds his way through several lyrical phrases with the piano. But with these solos and the addition of a movement to the traditional three-movement construction, the concerto strongly resembles a symphony. Ax engaged with each duet as though it were an interlude and then shifted to maintain center stage in the practiced style of a great concerto soloist.

His encore with Houston Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith no doubt solidified Ax’s duel stage personality. Together they performed one of Schumann’s fantasy pieces – a delightful complement to Brahms, who shared a close friendship with Robert and Clara Schumann. More than today’s expert on Brahms, Ax promotes a revolutionary approach to the soloist persona: the soloist who is a chamber musician first and a diva second. 

First on the program was Ives’ Symphony No. 2. It’s an early work in the composer’s repertoire, written between 1897 and 1901, and it shows. Before the downbeat, Orozco-Estrada played recordings of the American tunes hidden in the symphony, so that the audience would have an ear out for the familiar in the midst of the ironic nod to thick German symphonic style. The orchestra did a fine job playing it; but simply as a result of its construction, the symphony feels disjointed, and it is no wonder few orchestras perform it. The decision to put it before Ax’s magnificent performance of Brahms seemed like a necessity, rather than an artistic choice.