Emanuel Ax’s father worked at the Lwów Opera and it was he who gave Emanuel his first piano lessons. After two years in Canada the Ax family moved to New York, and five years later Emanuel enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music, studying piano for seven years with Mieczysław Munz (1900–1976), a pupil of Busoni. He was helped financially by the Boys’ Clubs of America and the Epstein Memorial Fund, which sponsored a tour of South America for him in 1969. From 1970, when Ax graduated from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French, he participated in many major competitions, including the Vianna da Motta in Portugal, the Queen Elisabeth in Belgium and the Chopin in Warsaw. However, it was in 1974 that he won the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein Competition, and it was this win that sparked the beginning of Ax’s successful career as a pianist. He continues to play around eighty concerts a year.
Ax has always enjoyed playing chamber music, often working with the Cleveland, Guarneri and Tokyo Quartets, and the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble. In 1980 Ax formed a trio with violinist Young Uck Kim and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and with Ma he has made many acclaimed recordings.
Although his repertoire is based around Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, Brahms and Beethoven, Ax has had success on disc with Mozart and Haydn as well. Although he has said that the style he most admires is that of Arthur Rubinstein—effortless and aristocratic—Ax’s main influence is obviously that of his teacher Munz, and through him the traditions of Busoni and the great pianists of the first half of the twentieth century. Having said that, Ax does not stamp his performances or the music he is playing with his own personality. He is a communicator of music and in the Chopin scherzos, for example, he allows the music time to breathe and takes tempi that help to point the form and structure of the works.
Ax has also programmed contemporary works, giving the New York première of Ned Rorem’s Eight Études, and the premières of Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan for piano, orchestra and tape and Joseph Schwanter’s Piano Concerto. Ax has also performed works by Copland, Schoenberg, Webern and William Bolcom.
After signing to RCA in the mid 1970s, Ax made around twenty LPs, including all the Beethoven piano concertos with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and André Previn and both Chopin concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. Ax won two Grammy Awards, in 1982 for a Schumann disc of the Fantasiestücke Op. 12 and Humoreske Op. 20, and in 1984 for a recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 15 with James Levine. In 1987 Ax signed to Sony with a debut album of Chopin featuring the four scherzos and a group of mazurkas. The scherzos demonstrate his preference for expansive readings and are the opposite of conceptions such as those of Pogorelich. The slow section of the B minor Scherzo is extremely slow, but in being so has the hypnotic, soporific quality of a lullaby. This introspective quality he brings to a group of mazurkas, but with Liszt, Ax seems less equipped with the extrovert quality required for works such as the piano concertos. These he recorded in the early 1990s with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, one critic stating that ‘…he shows that Liszt’s Concertos so abound in musical strength that there is no need to inflate or glamorise them.’ In 1993 Ax won an Edison Prize for his Brahms ‘Handel’ Variations, and other discs that have been well received include one of the three Haydn piano concertos.
Twenty years after recording the two Chopin piano concertos with Ormandy, Ax recorded them again, this time on an Érard piano of 1851 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Charles Mackerras.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist