RACHMANINOV: Preludes and Melodies – Alessio Bax, piano – Signum Classics

by | Jul 16, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

RACHMANINOV: Preludes and Melodies – Alessio Bax, piano – Signum Classics SIGCD264, 77:06 [Distr. By Qualiton] ****:

Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax (b. 1977) has assembled yet another all-Rachmaninov
recital–but with a distinct difference–this young artist seems to have been to the manner born! Opening with the Ten Preludes, Op. 23 (1903), Bax includes several early–c. 1887-1891–compositions by Rachmaninov as well as assorted pieces and fragments composed at the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution; song arrangements; and finally, three transcriptions – one from Mussorgsky and two from Fritz Kreisler.  Recorded 13-16 June 2010 at Wyastone Hall, Monmouthshire, the recital features some gorgeous Steinway piano sound reproduction, courtesy of recording engineer Mike Hatch.

As often as annotators cite Chopin and Liszt as Rachmaninov’s spiritual precursors, Bax often reveals, through the F Major Prelude, Op. 2 (1891) and Prelude in E-flat Minor (1887), that they point both to Grieg and Tchaikovsky as models for the fourteen-year-old Rachmaninov. The Melodie in E Major (1887) plays like an addendum to Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons suite. The heavy-footed Gavotte in D Major (1887) could have come from the equally Slavic pen of Dvorak or Smetana. The Canon in D Minor (1890) bestows a young Romantic’s conception of polyphony, one weaned away from Bach via Schumann. The 1917 Prelude in D Minor, however, has a world of bitter experience behind it, perhaps recalling in its coldly modal harmony something of Scriabin’s dashed hopes. The 1917 Fragments are no less spare, their late-Brahms kinship in autumn thoughts belied only by Rachmaninov’s idiosyncratic turns of staggered phrase and use of repeated notes.

Bax offers small group of Rachmaninov song transcriptions: Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 (1913), a kind of water piece after Liszt that evokes the ephemeral scent of the most elusive of flowers. Daisies, Op. 38, No. 3 (1922; rev. 1940) has a late Liszt ethos, cross-fertilized by etudes of Blumenthal and Anton Rubinstein. Bax’s piano tone quite ravishes in its upper register, like it had in the amazing performance of the D Major “Andante cantabile” from the Op. 23 Preludes. Bax provides his own transcription of the immortal Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 4 (1912), “a song I have always loved, not only for its beautiful melody, but for the intense harmonic world in which the melody is set,” adds Bax. The little Mussorgsky Hopak (1924) rings like a witty and deft quicksilver hammer, only a step away from Prokofiev’s famous March from The Love for Three Oranges. The two Kreisler staples–Liebesleid (1921) and Liebesfreud (1925)–set Rachmaninov in Old World Vienna, evocations of a lost world well regretted. Bax injects passion and sweep into both pieces, lavishing on the liquid arpeggios a largesse of spirit–much in the manner of Godowsky etudes–that defines the entire disc.

The Bax Op. 23 set could predictably become a classic. The F-sharp Minor hints at flowers of despondency or an age of anxiety.  The brazen rush of arpeggios of the B-flat Major suggests a torrential personality who wrestles Chopin’s grip with huge hands. The D Minor has a martial air that adds a sinister element to its “Tempo di minuetto” indication. Bax lets this marvelously mixed piece breathe in elastic periods. The D Major Prelude’s lilting, berceuse-like, contrapuntal symmetries justify the entire album, as Bax plays it with “inevitable” poetry.  Bax’s Steinway assumes a velvet paw for the G Minor Prelude, that happy combination of demonically militant swagger and divine, amorous vision. The E-flat Major invokes the world of Chopin nocturnes or late Brahms intermezzi, an Andante of lulling expressive subtlety and passionate intimacy. The C Minor rather blatantly takes its figures from Chopin’s last etude in the same key from Op. 25, cross-fertilized by Bach toccatas or Cesar Franck. The A-flat Major has an angular vitality, an etude that cannot decide whether it likes Chopin, Debussy, or Liszt, the last’s Waldesrauschen a close model. The Presto No. 9 in E-flat Minor projects a cunning bravura, a kind of staccato etude in double notes with huge spans and murderous work for the wrists. Finally, the wistful G-flat Major Prelude, agitated and resigned at once. Marked “Largo,” it elicits from Bax raindrop sentiments, the pauses between notes as meaningful as any held breath in a love scene starring Vivien Leigh. You want my highest recommendation? Bax makes me long to hear his Rachmaninov C-sharp Minor Prelude!

— Gary Lemco

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