BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 29 “Hammerklavier”; Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight”; The Ruins of Athens: Chorus of Dervishes; Turkish March – Alessio Bax, p. – Signum

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113: Chorus of Dervishes; Turkish March (arr. Bax) – Alessio Bax, p. – Signum Classics SIGCD397, 62:20 (9/8/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

If memory serves, the recording venue (17-19 January 2014) for this Beethoven assemblage: Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, served for many years the Nimbus label for their many fine keyboard inscriptions. Youthful Italian piano virtuoso Alessio Bax – whom I had the pleasure in hearing and reviewing at the Music@Menlo series in Palo Alto, California – brings a palpable enthusiasm to these Beethoven opera, especially to the massive 1818 Hammerklavier Sonata, which at the time of its composition, reflected the composer’s eagerness to exploit the expressive range of his new six-octave Broadwood instrument. Bax refers to the Sonata as “the Everest for a pianist.”

Many a scholar points to the Hammerklavier as the source for much of the dichotomies in Romanticism – aka Schumann – the alternation of forceful, aggressive figures and their antitheses in reflective, interior musings. As much as Bax asserts the vigorous impulses in the opening Allegro, his capacity for poetic lyricism rings just as spontaneously. The usual, contrapuntal momentum of the development section achieves a bel canto evocation in Bax’s Steinway that will beckon us to repeated hearings. Few contemporary pianists emit such a songful trill. 

The brief but eternally elusive Scherzo follows, its stops and starts suddenly “intruded upon” by a nervously-energized trio section that breaks out into a wild dance reminiscent of the energy in the Choral-Fantasy. Bax invests much heart-rending mortality into the monstrously beautiful Adagio, one of Beethoven’s supreme paeans to Nature and the continuity of his own soul.  Bax’s attentions to Beethoven’s various directives to the performer, e con sentimento, mezza voce, and una corda, resonate affectively in this performance, which I would rate high, along with the classic versions by Petri and Kentner. The drooping sequences might well have served Brahms for his E Minor Symphony. Having miraculously retained the vital tension of the Adagio without sag, Bax enters the rarified world of the Largo – Allegro risoluto; that is, the most audacious fugue after Bach wrought into a series of permutations which often combine academicism with a virtuoso toccata. 

The popular 1801 Sonata quasi una fantasia avoids having become anti-climactic after the Op. 106. Bax plays a fluid, graceful “improvisation” on the arpeggio of movement one, and that same arpeggio returns with a vengeance for the Presto agitato. Bax’s rendition favors poetry and clarity in all parts, and the combination of imagination and technical prowess remains the performer’s hallmark.

Bax takes his cue for the incidental music from the 1812 Kotzebue play Die Ruinen von Athen from Franz Liszt, who arranged the Dervish Chorus and Turkish March, among other motifs, for his own Fantasy on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens. We recall as well Emil Gilels’ forceful execution of Beethoven’s own Op. 76 Variations on a Turkish March, so Bax’s brilliant triplets and trumpet evocations hearken back to a fateful and explosively dramatic lineage.

Coincidentally, the liner notes by Music@Menlo’s Patrick Castillo, make mention that the Bax inscription of the Moonlight Sonata can now accompany those of Horowitz and Richter.  I beg to mention that no such Richter recording seems to exist.

—Gary Lemco

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