Wherever Emanuel Ax goes there is a buzz of excitement. I sensed ripples of giddiness from friends in the arts community as he passed through New York and Toronto on his recent concert tour, and also heard the anticipation in the voices of those with tickets for his Montréal concerts. With engagements all around the globe, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is fortunate to call Ax this season’s Artist in Residence, creating ideal conditions for his performance with a Steinway that Ax selected himself in New York. And indeed, it was a memorable concert, an intimate occasion to witness a master pianist breathe life in to favourites as well as lesser known works for the piano.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa Marie Mazzucco | Sony Classical
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco | Sony Classical

The first half of the concert was dedicated to solo piano pieces. Ax opened with Variations Chromatiques de Concert by Bizet, not the first composer one thinks of in the context of piano music. However, this performance led one to question why this work is not more prominent in the repertoire. Ax’s long, legato phrasing and direction gave the variations a sense of connection from one to the next. Careful control of the voices also made it easy to follow the transformation of the theme. Despite contrasts in mood, this thread connecting the work provided a sense of a coherent, artistic statement.

There was a similar approach to Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin, of which six of the eight pieces were performed. Ax spun the music forward, creating a musical journey rather than presenting discreet pieces. Careful voicing created transparent and refined textures. Ax’s use of pedal in a work that predates the piano shows the performer’s choice to embrace the capabilities of his instrument to provide greater expressive possibilities. Ax evoked the sophistication of Baroque textures, the dynamic contrasts built in to the writing and the spirit and spice at the core.

Ax then went on to tackle the refined expressiveness and the subtleties of a series of Debussy piano pieces, beginning with Estampes. There were light, floating chords and rippling water-like scales in “Pagodes”, as well as soft, distant harmonies in “La soirée dans Grenade”. “Jardins sous la pluie”, the most energetic of the three movements, featured effortless technique without showiness. Ax’s ability to keep harmonies soft and repressed while still projecting in the large hall seems like an astonishing magic trick. There were clear, singing melodies in the impassioned Hommage à Rameau and a careful distinction of layers in L’isle joyeuse. Here, the themes emerged out of the sound of the left hand ostinato, forming something at once delicate, fragile and yet carefree. The greatest joy of watching Ax perform is the intimacy. There is no great show of dramatic motions; each action is in service of the music. As he sometimes visibly sings along with the melody of a piece, it is as if the audience wasn’t there, as if he was in his own home making this music simply out of joy.

It was the Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major on the second half of the concert that stole the show. Ax returned to the stage with OSM string players Andrew Wan, Olivier Thouin, Neal Gripp and Brian Manker. This performance was probably the most physical performance of a chamber piece I have ever witnessed. The energy was unbelievable, the expressive power of the music physically embodied. This was particularly true of Wan, who at times would give so much to a particular bowing that he would nearly lift himself out of his chair.

As a collaborator, Ax slipped in the background. Although the piano is nearly always present in this work, Ax managed to stay out of the way of the other performers, contributing instead to the collective whole. Along with conveying the expressive power of the first movement, the ensemble was capable of the thinner, refined texture of the second movement and the rapid scalar passages of the third. The fugue of the fourth movement was wonderfully articulated, an accumulation of materials bringing the work to a rousing close. What a gesture, to end this solo concert not with a flashy étude, but in the company of other musicians.

There is something magical about watching a musician at work who clearly loves his craft. The intent of the performance is not related to ego, appearances or showmanship, but founded on the wonderful expressive power that lies at the core of great works of art. For me, this is what music making is all about, and this concert served as reminder of how great a gift music can be.