Emanuel Ax | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Pianist Emanuel Ax, who's probably best known for his chamber collaborations with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, has won several Grammys, including one for his outstanding recordings of Haydn piano sonatas. He returns to Ravinia on Monday to play all four Chopin ballades, written between 1831 and 1842. Each is an entirely different universe, yet they're all poetic examples of this artist's passion on a larger scale than his waltzes, mazurkas, nocturnes, or preludes. Chopin created the ballade form, which showcases his strengths--long lyrical lines and a free approach to developing and varying thematic material. The first and last ballades are the most famous and are among his greatest achievements. The first, in G minor, begins with a loud, low octave, then proceeds up the keyboard in a unison arpeggio in a seemingly unrelated key, leading to the mysterious, haunting opening theme. The second theme is as gentle and sunny as the beginning is dark, and each time it reappears it's more joyful than the last. The presto con fuoco finale hints at the depths of despair in the fourth ballade, which is in F minor but begins quietly in major, with soft octaves in the right hand and a serenely gentle descending melody in the left; each repetition of its sad, nocturnelike opening theme grows more lush and complex, and the second, more lighthearted, long-lined theme grows increasingly intense as it surges toward the devastating conclusion. Also on the program are Brahms's op. 10 ballades and Beethoven's Second Sonata, an exciting early work. See also Sunday. Mon 7/25, 8 PM, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park, 847-266-5100, $10-$50.

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