Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Preludes and Melodies
Preludes Op. 23 (1903) [32:46]
Prelude in F major, Op. 2 (1891) [3:30]
Canon in D minor (c. 1890) [1:15]
Prelude in E flat minor (1887) [3:06]
Melodie in E major (1887) [3:15]
Gavotte in D major (1887) [3:26]
Prelude in D minor, Op. Posth (1917) [2:53]
Fragments, Op. Posth (1917) [2:15]
Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 (1913) [2:41]
Daisies, Op. 38 No. 3 (1922, rev.1940) [2:30]
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 arr. Bax (1912) [6:25]
Sorochintsy Fair: Hopak (1924) [1:46]
Modest MUSSORGSKY, arr. Rachmaninov
Liebesleid (1921) [4:33]
Fritz KREISLER, arr. Rachmaninov
Liebesfreud (1925) [6:45]
Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. 13-16 June 2010, Wyastone Hall, Monmouthshire, UK.

Alessio Bax has been on our radar for a while now, with a release Baroque Reflections well received (see review), and this is his second solo piano recital disc for Signum Classics, the first being Bach Transcribed on SIGCD156.

In the booklet notes, Bax writes of Rachmaninov that “one of my earliest musical memories is listening to him play his own recordings. For a time, I felt he was totally incapable of wrongdoing and Rachmaninov became my musical guide.” This recording is therefore a kind of homage to the great composer/pianist. The Preludes op.23 are clearly the main draw here, but rather than follow the current trend by pairing them with the Op. 32 set, Bax also takes on a broad selection of Rachmaninov’s other studies, etudes, melodies and transcriptions, turning the programme into a substantial recital which Bax describes as a collection of ‘visions and landscapes’.

Beautifully recorded, these are performances to savour. From the outset you can sense Bax’s feelings for this music are deeply rooted and genuine. He doesn’t over-stretch points of interpretation, but neither does he by any means deliver straight and characterless readings. By way of comparison I’ve been listening to Rustem Hayroudinoff on Chandos CHAN10107, which is another fine and honestly expressed recording. To my ears, Bax has the more accurately tuned ear to accompanying textures and secondary voices. Taken a little faster than Hayroudinoff, Bax creates that miracle of speed and glorious texture in the famous Prelude Op. 23 no.2, while at the same time realising that maestoso marking by bringing out the long melodic lines and carefully layering the dynamics of the rest. To be honest, maestoso is the last marking you’d have in mind for most pianists in this piece – that or it is interpreted as slowness in general which misses the point of those accompanying ostinati, as happens with Earl Wild on his otherwise good but rather dryly recorded Chesky recording CD-114.

These points of interpretation and refinement in performance are strong elements throughout works which often invite a juggernaut approach. For those of you who nurture an aversion to Rachmaninov for this reason, Alessio Bax could well be the man to bring you into the fold. For instance, have a listen to the touch he gives to all those octaves in that fifth prelude. The world may already have stopped turning for you in the beauty of sound and lyricism Bax brings to the previous Prelude Op. 23 no. 4, and the ‘alla marcia’ of this following Prelude Op.23 no.5 could hardly be a bigger contrast, but Bax’s strutting rhythms also have a touch of the self-aware as well as having that much needed testosterone – a Matador with a twinkle in his eye and regrets in his heart.

The opus 23 Preludes are all a delight, and, as if we needed rewarding for this serious listening experience, Alessio Bax has selected a number of more or less well known individual pieces to complete his generous programme. The first five of these were written when Rachmaninov was a teenager, and what amounts to a brief chronological survey takes in gems such as gorgeous Prelude in E flat minor, in which you can hear the composer’s fingerprint pianistic writing and melodic gift already established, but still waiting for that unique seed to grow into genuine individuality, and melodic and harmonic genius. Craggy and uncompromising expression has emerged by 1917, and the Prelude in D minor, Op. Posth is an enigmatic tour de force. Another highlight is the famous Vocalise, arranged by Bax and providing a beautiful vehicle for his sustaining melodic touch and balance with second voices and harmony. Bax manages to suggest those chords in the first section, disguising their attack wonderfully, and creating a marvellously ethereal atmosphere. This is followed by some highly digestible encore material: Rachmaninov’s arrangements of Mussorgsky’s dancing Sorochinsky Fair, and Kreisler’s Liebesleid and Liebesfreud; salon rabble-rousers played with perfectly extrovert élan by Bax.

This is a marvellous recording and very easy to recommend. Mike Hatch’s superb sound engineering in the familiar and much loved Wyastone Hall acoustic deserves mention and plaudits, as does Signum’s presentation, with extensive artist’s notes and commentary on the music by Stuart Isacoff. You may or may not go for the moody ‘Captain Scarlet’ look given to our soloist for the cover photo, but don’t be fooled either way – even good looking musicians can be great artists.

Dominy Clements

Marvellous in every regard.