Alessio Bax plays BRAHMS – Four Ballades, Op. 10; 8 Klavierstuecke, Op. 76; Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35; Hungarian Dance No. 5 (arr. Brahms/Cziffra/Bax) – Alessio Bax, piano – Signum Classics SIGCD309, 74:15 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax performs (rec. 5-7 January 2012) an all-Brahms recital that confirms what we auditors at last year’s Menlo Concerts in Palo Alto (the “Through Brahms” experience) already knew: that Bax delivers a natural ethos in this composer’s combination of romantic passion and classical architecture. Bax notes that Brahms provides us one of those “visionaries who re-affirm the past and reinforce its foundations in order for us to move forward.”
Bax opens with the 1854 Four Ballades, of which the first in D Minor “Edward” retains a programmatic atmosphere, based on a Scottish tale about patricide. The transition to a Beethoven Fifth allusion in D Major allows Bax stentorian chords, but the da capo assumes a transparent melancholy. The D Major Andante that follows provides a kind of second movement to an untitled sonata. Folk elements weld themselves to tropes found in Schumann, piano, espessivo e dolce that segue to a virile march in the shifting meters of Schumann’s fantasy-maerchen. Acid attacks mark the B Minor Ballade No. 3, an intermezzo that serves as a scherzo. The trio section, diaphanous and carillon-like, provides an elegant contrast. Schumann’s dream-world spokesman, Eusebius, narrates a gossamer B Major Ballade via Bax, the tender droplets of which might have impressed Debussy. Episodic, rife with falling intervals, the piece sums up much of the Brahms ethos of controlled melancholia.
Despite a time lapse of some seventeen years, the liquid nostalgia of the Op. 76, No. 1 Capriccio in F-sharp Minor (1871) emanates a poised sadness and interior yearning. The compression of form does not diminish the exquisite intensity of feeling that Bax conveys to open this set of eight pieces Brahms evolved through 1878. The perennial Artur Rubinstein encore, the B Minor Capriccio, receives lightly explosive accents and gypsy whims from Bax. Liquid pearls define the A-flat Major Intermezzo, haunted in a way that suggests one of Schumann’s added studies for his Op. 13 Symphonic Etudes. Melancholy echo effects and subtle tremolos mark the B-flat Major Intermezzo whose middle section rings with dark hues. The C-sharp Minor Capriccio looks ahead to the Op. 117, No. 3 in its stormy passion, more of a Beethoven fierce bagatelle than its surrounding neighbors. Almost a Chopin mazurka in ternary form, the nuanced Intermezzo in A Major has Bax in poignant colloquy in several soft registers, lovingly etched. The A Minor Intermezzo again harkens us to Artur Rubinstein’s silken way in this repetitive melancholy plaint, a piece Bax caresses and pedals delicately. A shimmering angst permeates the C Major Capriccio that concludes the set, an opus Bax imbues with haunted resignation.
The 1863 two books of Paganini Variations were conceived for Polish piano phenomenon Carl Tausig, whom Liszt once described as “the infallible, with fingers of steel.” Having just auditioned the traversal of these overtly bravura studies by Erika Haase, hearing them with Bax at his breakneck speeds makes me do with my ears what my eyes do when gawking. Here is Brahms in the Earl Wild/Gyorgy Cziffra mood – tradition, bold, impetuous revels in color and character. To hear Bax negotiate double thirds and sixths with singular aplomb arouses our awe and envy. In its more demure or subdued moments, the Bax rendition touches upon the intimacy of the Bach D Minor Chaconne for solo violin, the musettes of Book I having become enchanting siciliani. A demonic Paganini etude in audacious flourishes concludes Book I.
No less furor inhabits Book II, in which Bax extends his prodigious mastery of color and technique. A persuasive Hungarian ethos infiltrates Variation 4. Variation No. 5 might have provided fodder for Saint-Saens’ kangaroos. Whiplash glissandi attack us in Variation 10. The lovely waltz in F Major, Variation 12, sings in a halo of arpeggios. Schumann’s influence moves Variation 13, so we wonder what Bax will do someday in that composer’s Op. 13. The singular momentum of the last Variation 14 quite overwhelms us in power, poetry, and grand gesture.
The encore piece, a wickedly mischievous setting of the Hungarian Dance No. 5 – used with equal wit by Charles Chaplin in The Great Dictator for a virtuoso shave – dazzles with a jazzy, boldly colossal chutzpah that brings this stunning disc to a madcap conclusion worthy of Liszt, if not Brahms.
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