Variations suit Emanuel Ax. The pianist's Celebrity Series recital on Friday — four sets of variations — played to one of the core strengths of his pianism: not so much based around cultivating a distinctive sound or interpretive posture, but rather, a mastery of musical taste, approaching each piece with proper etiquette, and more than enough technique to back it up. Ax might not push many boundaries, but he hits traditional marks with easy flair.
Franz Josef Haydn's Variations in F minor (Hob. XVII/6) was a good example: an almost stereotypical Haydn conception — elegant, balanced, with a fortepiano-like articulateness — but an uncannily polished realization: satiny phrases, decorative turns, and arpeggios crystalline and even.
For Beethoven's Op. 35 "Eroica" Variations, Ax stretched the outline in suitably Beethoven-like ways, brusque and emotive to match the composer's celebrity image. Ax amplified contrasts, both in volume — loud and lyrical bumping into each other, the theme's three-accent tattoo returning with consistent, no-nonsense brashness — and in timbre, an expressive divide between dry staccato and rich pedal, exaggerating the blur of the latter. True to the score, the performance mixed charm and obstinancy.
Robert Schumann's Op. 13 "Symphonic Etudes" ("en forme de variations," the original title reminds) made room for the Romantic era's simulated surprise. There was a deeper touch, more lingering over an unexpected turn (or delaying its arrival), a more precipitous way with the music's bursts of virtuosic speed. Like the Beethoven, the performance also hinted at portraiture, channeling the composer's penchant for obsessing over his passing enthusiasms. (Ax refined the Romantic tone into effervescence for his encores, waltzes by Liszt — the first of the "Valses Oubliées" — and Chopin, the Op. 34, No. 1.)
The concert had opened with what turned out to be Ax's most wide-ranging display, concentrated in the compact potency of Aaron Copland's early-modernist "Piano Variations." The music's surface is all clanging angularity, but Ax infused the structure with an array of inflections that foreshadowed the rest of the program: Schumann-like Romantic flourishes, isolated sonorities ringing out with Beethovenian insistence, individual notes and phrases given sudden, Haydnesque grace.
It is easy to find ever more radical interpretations of the standard repertoire — attempts, perhaps, to justify yet another return to the museum's core collection. Ax stays in the interpretive mainstream; but with enough skill to show that there's still variety to be found there.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri