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For decades, Santa Barbara audiences have been privy to the particular eminence and organic virtuosity of pianist Emanuel Ax via multiple local appearances, including a long-ago concert with a young Yo-Yo Ma, and in 2015, as soloist with Gustavo Dudamel and his L.A. Phil. We’ve also come to know of Ax’s deposits of unpretentious humor, as witnessed at his latest appearance, in a quietly dazzling CAMA-presented recital at the Lobero Theatre last week.
“I hope you all like early Beethoven,” he grinned at the audience, between pieces of his all-Beethoven (and all early, Haydn-esque Beethoven) program. “That’s all I’ve got tonight,” he added. Introducing the quirkiest item on the menu, variations on Rule, Britannia, Ax quipped, “I did consult encyclopedias and Beethoven had no opinion on Brexit whatsoever.” Enter rim shot.
Comic banter aside, Ax’s contribution to the current 250th birthday celebration of the great German/Viennese composer struck a powerful chord, with the pianist’s ready keyboard command and expressive sublimity in check. Refreshingly avoiding the popular sturm und drang qualities of the mature Beethoven’s output, Ax instead focused on the intricacies and intrigues of the three piano sonatas from the then-twentysomething composer’s Opus 3, written in 1786 and dedicated to Haydn. For crowd-pleasing’s sake, the recital opened with the elegant “Für Elise,” but also included the lesser-known pleasures of Six Variations on an original theme for piano in F, Opus 34, lined with lyricism, assertive spirits and a few well-placed “wrong” notes.
With these scores, mentor Papa Haydn’s thumbprint is there, along with hints of the creatively restless and tradition-stretching Beethoven-to-come, and Ax brought his lucid grace and measured mastery to bear, as expected. Make no mistake: This was a fulfilling, serious evening, leavened by a pinch of funny business.