Riaskoff Concert Management has successfully presented masters of the piano in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw since 1987 and has built (and educated) a loyal public, carefully attracting the young while respecting and maintaining a relationship with the not-so-young. Both generations served up a warm welcome to Emanuel Ax upon his descent to the podium Sunday where he paid homage to the pianist’s pianist, Johannes Brahms.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa Maria Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Maria Mazzucco

A young Brahms opened the concert. Ax afforded his Piano Sonata no. 2 in F sharp minor all the hormones that ambitious Johannes had packed into the energetic, early work. F sharp minor can be quite a shock and Ax successfully guided us through the complex harmonies with clarity of touch and subtlety in his timing. The composer as a young man: brimming with ideas he feared might fade. Enough musical creativity for a lifetime in just four movements, extremely difficult to perform and rough around the edges in comparison to riper Brahms, this piece can easily become a bashing match between notes and pianist. Yet Ax’s agility, control and strength of will were all sublime.

We were then catapulted from young and hungry to rich and ripe in Klavierstücke: tender romance, wisdom from experience, humanity, all the colors and the richness of Brahms as a master. Virtuosity on a par with Liszt but so much more beautiful in melody, form and structure. No wonder the world has had a love affair with these pieces ever since; Ax performed them with grandeur and grace. His technical skill is never exposed as self-serving: Ax played perfect parallel octaves, made all the jumps and despite all the sweat, it seemed effortless. All the while, Ax’s sparing use of pedal supports the narrative, the story lines in Brahms. The architecture of each piece was crystal clear. Ax felt clearly at home and used the pristine Amsterdam acoustics to serve the music he adores without an ounce of sentimentality, where the temptation is often to whine, weep and posture.

Emanuel Ax is not only a wonderful musician: he is a curious and enterprising man. Two works on the program were commissioned by him (in collaboration with coast to coast American institutions including Carnegie Hall in New York and CAL performances in Berkeley, California). Both worked very well to augment Brahms and draw him lovingly into the sounds of our own time. The first was a trio of short interludes by the Australian Brett Dean which were performed between the Intermezzi of Op.119. A lovely idea! Dean’s style is fluid, warm, reassuring and well-balanced, mirroring the ample use of registers in the Brahms. These two differing vocabularies work very well together: the petite sting of the strange alternating our sighs of recognition.

A second composition, death-defying and difficult, was by the American composer Missy Mazzoli: Bolts of Loving Thunder. Indeed, Ax bit into the piece with gusto! Mazzoli was another superb addition to this Brahms tribute, an interesting composer of real promise.

As opposed to a flashy conclusion, Emanuel Ax chose a piece from middle aged Brahms to end the evening: his Variations on a theme by Handel. These variations too are technically difficult – what Brahms isn’t? Yet this was easy fare for Ax whose subtleties, wisdom, warmth and poetry are in such abundance. All were thrilled when Ax returned with truly wonderful late Brahms intermezzi as encores. The homage due was not only to the great composer but also to a true master of the piano, an active mind and wonderful performer: Emanuel Ax.