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Two pals and a piano

Longtime friends and virtuosic keyboard colleagues Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman cut loose in L.A.

November 14, 2008|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Manny and Fima are a couple of very well-liked guys who live in the same building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They come from the same part of the world and from countries that begin with the letter U: Manny was born in Ukraine, Fima in what is now Uzbekistan. Manny's the mensch with a flair for practical jokes. Fima's known to be a character. Like a lot of Eastern European Jewish emigrants to New York, they like to eat, but they have been watching their weight and lately have lost some.

They both have a casual, slightly schlumphy look. Fima, who is on the bearish side, turned 50 this year, and his hair is often mussed. A little more professorial in manner, Manny is nine years older. They have been friends since Fima arrived in the States, nearly 30 years ago. Sometimes they ride the subway together to work in the Lincoln Center area. Now and then they even take trips together. They are on one such trip at the moment, and Wednesday they flew into Los Angeles and dropped by Walt Disney Concert Hall in the evening to play around a little. Make that to play -- a lot. They are Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman, two of the world's finest pianists.

If outsiders regularly refer to these distinguished artists by their nicknames, they are to blame. That's how they refer to themselves on their respective websites -- and Manny's, by the way, is a disaster, so dark you can't read a thing. He's clearly got better things on which to spend his time, like playing pranks on Yo-Yo Ma or Andre Previn.

The good nature of the pianists, along with some friendly competitiveness, was not hard to miss at their Disney duo recital. But then, by now they are our friends as well. Ax has been a regular at the Music Center since 1975; Bronfman's career got a major boost from Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the '80s. Ax was recently a Philharmonic "On Location" resident artist. Bronfman is currently one: He opened the orchestra's season with an unforgettable performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and is just back from touring in Asia with the Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Bronfman is known as the more brilliant player, whereas Ax is seen as more poetic. But these distinctions operate on a continuum. Bronfman, who can play fistfuls of notes at high speed like nobody's business, has his delicate side. Although he doesn't normally make a big deal of it, Ax has a monster technique.

In virtuoso showpieces Wednesday, Ax, undoubtedly in response to Bronfman, put on a percussive performance. Bronfman dazzled as he always does, but he also revealed that he could play with expressive eloquence. Neither pianist was about to be outdone by the other, but what made the partnership so remarkable was that Ax and Bronfman each did this in such a way as to support and enhance what the other guy was doing.

The program was mostly standard, with Ax and Bronfman alternating pianos (and first and second piano parts). The recital began with Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," each variation enhanced by Bronfman's sparkle and Ax's beautiful sense of texturing chords.

The novelty was William Bolcom's "Recuerdos," three irresistible Latin American dances by an American composer who never met a style he couldn't absorb. Fun is permitted. Although the pianists appeared to be working extra hard (the music was new to them), they also proved to be Eastern Europeans who know the allure of South American dance and a little something about how to be cutups.

Mozart's Sonata in D, K. 448, is not meant to be delicate all the time but when it was, especially in the heavenly slow movement, burly hands became digits dancing on clouds. Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, a piece Ax and Bronfman have played together often and recorded (as they have the Brahms), was magnificent. Bronfman is far more closely associated with Rachmaninoff than Ax, but they shared a sense of soul as well as flair.

The two men have not slimmed down quite enough to comfortably squeeze together for four-hand piano music. Still, they managed for the encore, a Dvorak Slavonic Dance. There was clowning; Bronfman, seated on the outside, made Jack Benny-like glances of exasperation to the audience. The performance, with all its slowing down and speeding up, was brilliant and a joy.

The audience wanted more. But my guess is that Patina and a gathering of friends were now on their minds.


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