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Baroque Reflections
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565, transcribed by Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924)
Concerto in D minor, BWV974, after an Oboe Concerto by Alessandro Marcello (1669-1747)
Prelude in B minor, BWV855, transcribed by Alexander Siloti (1863-1945)
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring from Cantata No 147, transcribed by Myra Hess (1890-1965)
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-87)

Mélodie (from Orfeo ed Euridice) arranged by Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914)
Franz LISZT (1811-86)

Transcription of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Almira, by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Suite from the Partita in E major for solo violin, BWV1006, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op 42
Alessio Bax (piano)
recorded at the Maltings, Snape, Suffolk, May 2004
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61695-2 [69'16"]

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Interesting to reflect on the current fascination with Baroque music among the music-loving (or rather CD-loving) public, and to be reminded that - as this collection of arrangements, and music inspired by or reconstructed from Baroque originals, shows - it’s nothing new! Can it be that the relatively narrow range of dynamics, colours and moods - its relative ‘constancy’ - is in itself a source of delight, peace or stimulation? In which case, why listen to Busoni’s Bach or Liszt’s Handel at all, given their absurdly(?) exaggerated gestures and massive textures? Or indeed almost any of the music on this disc in preference to the originals from which they come?

Alessio Bax makes out a compelling case for doing so. The program is intelligently planned, progressing from the commanding fanfares of the Bach-Busoni transcription, via the Siloti, Hess and Gluck arrangements - song-like intermezzi in this context - to an impressive reading of the extended Corelli variations to bring down the curtain. It works well as a package and, despite, one imagines, being recorded in his own time, not only sustains our interest and attention over 69 minutes, but also delivers a cumulative effect, as if we were listening to some grand sonata or unified collection.

Performers working with this kind of repertoire can allow themselves the option of making subtle and restrained Baroque-like understatements, or recognising the theatrical attitude of the transcribers and arrangers by deliberately opening up a huge range of modern-instrument effects. With impeccable judgement, Bax veers convincingly from one to the other, and seldom disappoints. The meticulous clarity of his articulation in the opening flourishes of the Bach-Busoni Toccata, or the right-hand (originally oboe) lines of Marcello’s ‘concerto’ are noteworthy: it’s all beautifully stylish, one hesitates to say ‘authentic’, suggesting that any future venture into the Partitas or Goldberg Variations may well prove a serious rival to Perahia’s, Hewitt’s or Schiff’s. On the other hand, the sheer technicolor extroversion of his Liszt and the freedom with which he roams through Rachmaninov’s variations fully match the scale and range of their composers’ thinking. So, unsurprisingly, in Siloti’s Prelude, or in Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, he is able most persuasively to distinguish between ‘sung’ lines and any superimposed decoration, with a two-manual, almost orchestral, effect: such is his tonal control.

The presentation is rather lightweight, surprising for such a ‘glossy’ programme, with notes which contain more unsupported value judgements than really useful information. Indeed, we are told that Gluck’s Mélodie is a transcription of Orfeo’s lament ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ - "one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed" - but it is in fact a different number from the same opera, the celebrated Dance of the Blessed Spirits.

I wouldn’t put the recorded sound in the topmost flight. It’s admirably clear but, certainly compared with the very best piano recordings available today, slightly hard, tending to harshness in forte. One seldom sits up and notices the beauty of sonority - despite the undoubted beauty of Bax’s playing. It’s the kind of tonal character which might better suit ‘pure’ Bach rather than ‘modified’ Bach: a greater weight and resonance would be surely more fitting in this repertory. But don’t let these remarks lessen your temptation to acquire a distinguished and refreshingly ‘different’ recital.

Peter J Lawson

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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