MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491; Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 495; 8 Variations on Sarti’s “Come un agnello,” K. 460 – Alessio Bax, p./ Southbank Sinfonia/ Simon Over – Signum Classics SIGCD321, 73:21 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Leeds International Competition winner Alessio Bax here extends his repute as a performer of gossamer brilliance with a Mozart disc (rec. 7-8 June 2012) dear to his own heart. What strikes me about these two oft-performed concertos in Bax’s realization with the youthful players of the Southbank Sinfonia under Simon Over has to be the sustained level of controlled intimacy each of the works projects, that rare combination of fleet digital fluency and interior drama that emerges in the course of Mozart’s open-work dialogues between the keyboard and the assorted wind and string instruments. In the 1786 C Minor, Mozart’s most elegantly crafted tragic expression in the concerto form, Bax negotiates the various melodic leaps in elegantly brisk style, while the orchestral colors – flute (Lina Andonovska) and bassoons (Ruth Rosales and Sophie Crawford) – add a dimension of wistful yearning to the proceedings. The quality of the strings, moreover, often avoiding vibrato, impart a haunted quality even in the midst of otherwise ravishing runs and flourishes. The cadenza by Bax, terse yet rife with the pungent drama that adumbrates much of Beethoven, recalls much of the poignant drive that Edwin Fischer brought to this passionately grand piece.
The darkly chromatic sturm und drang continues into the exquisite Larghetto, where the woodwinds – such as oboes Odette Cotton and Nicola Barbagli – contribute their disturbed hues. Mozart’s sense of color provides another form of quiet drama in the subtle theme and variations of the Allegretto finale, which often assume the textures and dynamic of a virtuosic piano and wind quintet or serenade. Trumpets (Russell Jackson and Raffaele Chieli) and tympani (Catherine Ring) make their hearty presence felt as we transition into the E-flat Major variant, a moment of militant aggression which soon reverts to the composer’s introspective and even contrapuntally melancholy muse. Lovely, seamless runs for the G Major variant, the staccati from Bax in luminous pearls. The decisive pulse to the finale, with its wry and demonic explosion to 6/8, compels to applaud a superior reading, pungently present as if we too witnessed the recording session at Saint Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London.
Among the more restrained versions of the 1791 B-flat Major Piano Concerto, the Bax/Over collaboration delights in lyrical effusion and ease of transition. Mozart’s complete inner serenity in this piece informs every evolution of its color blends, as when the keyboard plays upward runs and arpeggios against tripping pizzicati in the opening movement. For a gilded moment, the first violin (Leslie Boulin Raulet) plays in tandem with Bax’s luxuriant piano, the latter a ceaseless, moving glow that illuminates a broad if melancholy emotional landscape. The B Minor development that invokes colors from bassoons and fertile strings and their alchemy with the keyboard warrants tears, even before the transition to a C Major that seems a galaxy away from our emotional center. Another tender, virtually other-worldly Larghetto ensues, the French horn (Phillippa Slack) ushering the rising melody and its wistful roulades. Recording engineer Mike Hatch captures the Bax Steinway with superlative resonance, avoiding any ping in the overtones. The last movement, an instrumental rendering of Mozart’s own “Sehnsucht nach dem Fruelinge,” adds a more bravura dimension, especially in the rather thrilling string and flute work that accompanies Bax’s aeronautics.
Serving as a delightful encore, the 1784 Variations on Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I due litigant il terzo gode, While Two Engage in Debate, a Third Enjoys, provide Bax a fertile garden of digital delights, the tune having been based on a familiar aria, Come un agnello, which Mozart would utilize once more in Don Giovanni. Bax imposes a colossal alla musette character upon the whole, the work here ringing spontaneously like a most elaborate musical box. The clarity of line resembles that of Walter Gieseking but with a decided girth in the tone of a carillon character. My personal favorite among the variants, No. 6, bubbles and percolates with astonishing éclat. Jabbing accents ensue at No. 7, and No. 8 (entering after a natural cadenza) journeys into more intimate realms – a virtual sonata in itself – before pouncing to a thrillingly spectacular finale.