This is not the first all-variation recital by a leading pianist, but it's a fresh outing by the venerable Emanuel Ax that uses the variation form to explore the innovative currents percolating through some less commonly played works. Beethoven's Variations and Fugue for piano in E flat major, Op. 35, are known as the "Eroica Variations" because they are based on the same two themes that would later appear in the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"). It's very easy to construct a splashy reading pointing to Beethoven's early career as a virtuoso pianist, and that's what's often been done. Ax, on the other hand, takes the reasonable step of treating the work as a prelude to the "Eroica" symphony, damping down the virtuosity a good deal (of course, he's enough of a virtuoso to get away with that) and bringing the variations together into larger groups. His reading seems almost meditative at first, although it eventually builds in power, and it's quite absorbing. Likewise for the Variations for piano in F minor, Hob. 17/6, of Haydn, perhaps the single piece in Haydn's entire catalog that points forward most clearly to the Romantic era. The work, with its harmonic excursions and unusual double variation structure, offers plenty to chew on if the pianist slows down enough to get inside it, and Ax's reading brings out its adventurous quality. The Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, of Schumann are given a confidently, coolly controlled performance, even in the midst of extreme technical challenges. The upshot is to make these three works sound quite close to one another, no mean feat, and one that brings fresh insights to each.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Variations and Fugue for Piano in E flat major, Op. 35 'Eroica' Variations|
|Symphonic Études, Op. 13|