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Emanuel Ax captures Beethoven's Fourth 

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click to enlarge Pianist Emanuel Ax - LISA MARIE MAZZUCCO
  • Pianist Emanuel Ax
  • Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Appearing in town less than two years after guesting with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Carmel Palladium, Emanuel Ax all but conquered Friday's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert with his reading of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G. Op. 58, easily the finest of the composer's "five." Guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero all but matched Ax's achievement, taking his players along for a "perfect" ride.

As he showed with the Clevelanders, Ax not only senses what the music needs to do to reveal its full expressive qualities, but he does it with a matchless keyboard touch--all the notes distinct but wedded together in a perfect legato. His "dialogue" with the orchestra in the profound slow movement was nicely contrasted with the orchestra's brusque punctuations, answered by Ax's plaintive replies--a movement unduplicated in Beethoven's oeuvre. The concerto's keyboard challenges mastered, its beauty, its drama, its congenial warmth . . . it was all there.

Following the break, Guerrero conducted Strauss's well known tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration - 1889), the second of his remarkable set of eight in that genre (not counting the early Macbeth, which never really made the repertoire)--and far different from the others. A slow "tristamente" gives way to a dramatic outburst, carrying on a bit long before the transfiguration theme appears, swelling to a climax strongly alluding to Wagner's "Liebestod," which concludes his opera Tristan und Isolde. This makes Tod the most Wagnerian of Strauss's eight. Guerrero's reading was satisfying overall.

But Guerrero handled Francesca da Rimini of Tchaikovsky even better. This symphonic fantasy in E minor of 1876 deals with Dante Alighieri's nine circles of hell--a.k.a. Dante's Inferno, and the female lover trapped therein for committing adultery with her ugly husband's brother. The piece starts in "inferno" and ends there, while a vaster middle section recalls Francesca's life and loves. This is Tchaikovsky's most Liszt-derived piece he wrote, with masterful orchestration used to weave his rather desultory moods.

Much credit should be given to our flutist trio: Rebecca Price Arrensen, Robin Peller and principal Karen Moratz for their enduring workout in supplying those harmonized, decorative figurations throughout the love section and their further workout in the piece's hellish bookends. At Francesca's -- and the concert's --smashing ending, with a gong (or tam-tam) adding to the decibels, the audience responded in kind with a thundering ovation.

In this season of seemingly one "premiere" after another, the program opened with the performance debut of Dunes, a musical pictorial of California's Death Valley, by William Brittelle (b. 1976). Lasting about ten minutes, Dunes makes a much better impression when accompanying various shots--on video--of the hottest valley in the Western Hemisphere and its diverse land features. Which we saw during the pre-concert Words on Music--the music recorded, the video on a large, flat-screen TV. Feb. 1-2; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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