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SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in f-sharp minor; Etude in c-sharp minor; Prelude for the Left Hand; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; A Night on Bare Mountain – Alessio Bax, p. – Signum Classics

SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in f-sharp minor, Op. 23; Etude in c-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1; Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 1; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; A Night on the Bare Mountain (arr. Chernov and Bax) – Alessio Bax, p. – Signum Classics SIGCD426, 66:16 (9/11/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax extends his grand association with the Romantic temper with this Russian recital, inscribed 23-27 January 2015. The Scriabin works reveal the idiosyncratic composer’s stylistic growth in reverse: Bax opens with the 1897 Third Sonata, the piece which announced his separate identity, after having been for his first twenty-five years a Chopin acolyte.  The work bears cyclic comparisons with the music of Liszt and Franck.  The opening movement, Drammatico, urges a passionate sense of personal autonomy, even victory. Bax, far from Horowitz here, projects the lyric impulse over the stentorian assertions. Bax feels more militant in the second movement Allegretto, a hasty march that hovers between major and minor modalities. The trio section of this ‘scherzo’ proffers arresting triplets.  The Andante in B Major spins a luxuriant nocturne, much in the Chopin mode of his own Third Sonata. Bax opts for a distinct “water” effect that may well invoke works by Liszt in the same sonic world.  Restive chromatics mark the last movement Presto con fuoco, in which Scriabin’s capacity for counterpoint figures prominently.  The layering effect bears a striking resemblance to aspects of Wagner’s Tristan in its nervous reliance on semitone steps. Bax well captures the music’s tumultuous rapture, already the kind of Whitman “song of myself” that defines much of the Scriabin ethos.

The “violet gardens” in Scriabin’s erotic sensibility assert themselves in his early (1886) Etude in c-sharp minor, a piece Bax plays for its yearning for polyphonic, voluptuous sensation.  Most Chopin-like, the Prelude for the Left Hand conjures a fertile nocturne that belies its single-handedness.  The piece evolved from Scriabin’s own strains on his right hand when he over-practiced works of Liszt, among them the Don Juan Fantasy and his favorite, the Dante Sonata.

Liszt indeed provided the impetus for the symphonic poem A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867), much modeled after Liszt’s Totentanz. Using Konstantin Chernov’s transcription as his base, Bax adds his own bravura – especially glissando – touches to intensify the ghoulish gathering on St. John’s Eve, so well delineated in Disney’s Fantasia, for which Bela Lugosi mimed Lucifer’s gestures.  The natural percussion of the music provides a color more forceful than Bax’s approach to the Pictures suite, which seems predominantly Apollinian in nature.  The sheer bulk and insistence of the staccato figures should have flattened all of Bax’s fingers. The parlando retreat of Satan’s votaries at daybreak proves lyrical and touching.

The intellectual thoughtfulness applied to Pictures, however, does imbue Gnomus a reflective character we do not often hear. Mussorgsky promenades to The Old Castle to find a Mediterranean enchantment. The third appearance of the Promenade offers some power, prior to the teasing of the children of the TuileriesBydlo, a salt-of-the-earth ox-cart, driven in massive chords, conveys a primal energy competitive with Horowitz and Richter. Light, fleet figures define the chicks for Petipa’s Trilby. The recitative in augmented seconds for the Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle section conveys self-importance and ethnic caricature. The bustling energy of the Limoges market provides a foil for the mortal thoughts that pervade the Catacombs. An inner light provides an epiphany, likely from the deceased Viktor Hartmann, to the corpulent walker, Mussorgsky. With Baba Yaga – recently revived in the figure of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick – Russian folklore compels Bax to play Allegro con brio, feroce, despite his lyrical tendencies. Having plummeted into Hell, Mussorgsky catapults us into Heaven, via The Great Gate of Kiev. Grand and articulate as the Bax rendition proves, it may lack the sheer, insane volume of the Richter performance, which most of us cherish, covet, and hope to hear surpassed.

—Gary Lemco

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