An exciting piano package from Alessio Bax: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

March 26, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Italian pianist, Alessio Bax, ticked all the right pre-concert boxes for his Sydney Recital Hall performance last night.

Alessio Bax Photo: Marco Borggreve

At 42 he is at the peak of his technical and interpretative powers. He has a string of major competition wins behind him, has played with a who’s who of orchestras around the world – and has movie-star grade looks to top it off. His programme seemed to correspond to his personal package with an eclectic offering of Bach, Rachmaninov, Dallapiccola and Liszt.

Bach, a popular recital starer, was represented by the Concerto in D minor, BWV974. While the original material was taken from an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, it is pure Bach in style, with two quick movements bookending a slow movement, in this case of such beauty that is has brought forth adaptations for various instruments.

Bach interpretations probably create more points of view than those of any other composer. They swing between the likes of Glen Gould’s click of ball bearings and Murray Perahia’s contention that, if Bach were composing for the modern piano, the music would (and should) use the full resources of the instrument. Bax revealed himself as a Perahia sympathiser, with plenty of pedal and a more romantic interpretation. While the technique introduced a degree of syrup into the two outside movements at the expense of voicing, it worked magic in the middle adagio movement.

The Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which preceded interval, was the highlight of the concert for me. And not just because, according to Vladimir Ashkenazy, this is Rachmaninov’s ‘most eloquent composition’, but because Bax took it to an inspired level of interpretation, with no sign of technical stress. He was able to switch moods throughout the 20 variations plus coda, teasing out the rich Rachmaninov harmonies and setting off firecrackers when called for by the score.

And speaking of scores, Bax needed to perch a copy on the piano’s desk for Quaderno musicale di Annaliberaby Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975). Going on recordings I’d heard I came to the concert prepared to dislike these 11 often discordant and hesitant fragments from a notebook written by Dallapiccola for his daughter. But Bax played them with such dedication and pianissimo tenderness that I found myself mellowing towards the work.

As if on a freshly rolled turf wicket, Bax then came out to bat against the bowling of Liszt for the final two works. The first, St Francios d’Assise: La predication aux oiseaux(St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds) was as overflowing with notes as Dallapiccola was underflowing. The birds have a lot more to say than St Francis in this popular concert piece of Liszt, with its seemingly endless cascades of twittering notes and trills that need exceptional fluidity to give it shape.  This was where Bax showed himself to have an insight into Liszt that went beyond playing with just accuracy and showy speed. Although he deployed breathtaking technique it was the feeling of narrative that made it so convincing.

Fraser Beath McEwing

With his hands still hovering over the keyboard waiting for the last bird to fly away, Bax laid straight into Apres une Lecture di Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata.  This makes an ideal finale when a pianist wants to raise the roof and threaten the wellbeing of the piano. In many ways, this single movement sonata is from the same mould as Liszt’s sonata in B minor. Although not as long, it is just as explosive and technically challenging – and a lot more menacing, since it dispenses visions of Hell and the doings of the Devil. Bax’s performance was among the best I’ve heard, especially at a live concert. Again, it wasn’t conflagration for its own sake, but a finely crafted sequence, even if Alessio, bouncing clear of his stool, did get a bit over-heated towards the end of the piece. Liszt himself was sometimes guilty of trying for eleven tenths too, but he got out of it by swooning – not something that Bax and his contemporaries indulge in these days.

Sydney City Recital Hall Piano Series 25 March 2019

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