Notes and Editorial Reviews
. Eight Piano Pieces,
: Books 1 and 2, Op. 35.
Alessio Bax (pn)
SIGNUM 309 (74:15)
The intriguingly named, unreasonably photogenic pianist Alessio Bax proves himself here
to be an ideal Brahmsian. The disc’s sampling of Brahms’s early, middle, and late piano music follows an artful sequence that moves from the yearning, gloomy op. 10 Ballades, to the emotionally varied, experimental op. 76 pieces, to the
splendid showiness, and into even further levels of exhibitionism with Bax’s doctoring of a Cziffra-transcribed
I can’t recall hearing a less than compelling performance of Brahms’s four ballades. Gilels, Michelangeli, Gould, and Rubinstein, among others, each recorded distinguished versions, but Bax’s performance brings out the jagged rhyme schemes of their phrase structure with even greater eloquence than his predecessors. He delivers the music’s narrative like a superb Lieder singer, and his obvious comfort with Brahms’s sometimes awkward piano writing enables him to color the music more subtly than I have heard before. (In the playing of some of the greatest Brahms pianists —Petri, Kempff, Katchen, Richter—instrumental color is sometimes an afterthought.)
The op. 76 set of eight intermezzos and capriccios is the largest of Brahms’s collections of short piano pieces from his later years. It is less often heard than opp. 116-119, and represents a far more resourceful approach to piano writing than op. 10. Bax is wonderfully responsive to the music’s variety of textures and moods. It’s as if he paints each piece with its own palette of colors, enhanced by beautifully clear articulation and imaginative pedalling, and always with a natural, eloquent arc to the phrasing. Some carefully clipped, staccato chords in the second piece—Brahms in a humorous, Hungarian mode—sounded unusual to me, but they are found in the score, more scrupulously observed by Bax than other pianists. The set’s musical high point is reached in the final C-Major Capriccio, a contrapuntally dense, harmonically searching, and emotionally uninhibited piece that Bax turns into a suitably ecstatic conclusion.
Alessio Bax’s big technique is worthy of Brahms’s piano concertos, the first of which he has recorded, and he revels in the unabashed virtuosity of the
. He plays the Paganini theme once at the start, and proceeds continuously through both books in an uneccentric, joyous performance, savoring the relief provided by the two slower variations in Book 2. The
No. 5, as transcribed by György Cziffra, is one of several Brahms
adaptations that Bax performs as encores in his concerts, and that is its dazzling function here. Signum’s sound ideally showcases Bax’s huge dynamic range. When I want to listen to any of these pieces, this truly notable disc will now be my first choice. I urge you to hear it.
FANFARE: Paul Orgel
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