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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
4 Ballades, Op. 10 (1854) [23:35]
8 Klavierstücke (8 Pieces), Op. 76 (1878) [25:49]
Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35 (1863) [21:07]
Hungarian Dance No. 5 (transc. György Cziffra, modified Alessio Bax) [3:42]
Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. 5-7 January 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD309 [74:15]

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Alessio Bax was the first prize winner at both the 1997 Hamamatsu International Piano Competition and the 2000 Leeds International Piano Competition. Today he is pursuing a successful international career. At the time of writing the Italian-born Bax is playing dates in New York, the city in which he has made his home.
 
I remain impressed with Bax’s previous two releases on the Signum Classics label. In 2009 there was ‘Bach Transcribed’ and from 2011 ‘Rachmaninov: Preludes and Melodies’.
 
Bax’s latest offering on Signum Classics is a Brahms recital recorded earlier this year at the Wyastone Concert Hall in Monmouth. The high quality programme has been well chosen opening with the 4 Ballades. The young Brahms at the start of his composing career had recently begun his association with Robert and Clara Schumann. With the form of the ballade Brahms was following in the footsteps of Chopin who had completed his final F Major Ballade just over a decade earlier in 1842/43. I especially enjoyed Bax’s expressive playing of the Ballade No.3 in B minor,a restless and stormy Intermezzo containing a profusion of scurrying figures. By contrast in his interpretation of the Ballade No. 4 in B major Bax fashions a dream-like world of comfort and security.

Next we have the 8 Klavierstücke. These miniature masterworks are products of Brahms’s compositional maturity. He styled them as either Intermezzos typically soothing pieces or squally Capriccios. Somewhat predictably the standout here is the frequently heard No. 2 Capriccio in B minor with its memorable Staccato theme. I love the way Bax entices such charming lyricism from the No. 3 Intermezzo in A-flat major. By using the popular theme based on Paganini’s Twenty-Fourth Caprice Brahms with his Paganini Studies, Op. 35 was following similarly inspired works by Liszt and Schumann. Bax is thoroughly at home playing this formidable set of pieces with such proficiency and rapt concentration. For the short final work on the release Bax has selected his own adaptation of György Cziffra’s transcriptions of Brahms’s well known Hungarian Dance No. 5. Bax flavours the gypsy melody heard over emphatically strong rhythms with spicy seasoning. There is never any suggestion of the commonly encountered uncomfortable and brash feeling. Bax ensures that the popular tune remains fresh and appealing.
 
I relished this recital programme by Alessio Bax from start to finish. Demonstrating such a high level of musicality there is no sense that Bax is distracting focus away from the composer to the soloist. Bax’s splendidly assured playing is satisfying and the recording has the benefit of splendid sound quality.  

Michael Cookson 

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