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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 Hammerklavier (1817-18) [43:45]
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 Moonlight (1801) [14:17]
Chorus of the Whirling Dervishes and Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113 (1811-12) (arr. Alessio Bax) [4:15]
Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK, 17-19 January 2014

According to his note in the CD booklet, Alessio Bax has lived with the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Everest of piano sonatas, for nearly twenty years. That means he would have been about age 17 when he first played it. Quite a feat, I would say and one that he proves to have mastered in this new recording. This behemoth is both technically and intellectually challenging and only the greatest of pianists have really conquered it. The recording of the sonata with which I first became acquainted was that by Rudolf Serkin. That performance on Sony is still magnificent even if today’s pianists find it easier to play than some of their illustrious predecessors did. Another such pianist, the young Igor Levit, has also made quite a name for himself in this work and the other later Beethoven piano sonatas. I did a comparison of the two pianists and find that their interpretations complement one another. Levit seems more straightforward, while Bax displays more tempo variety and emphasizes the dramatic elements. I don’t want to make too much of this and can say that both pianists excel in this mammoth piece. In all but the second movement Scherzo Bax takes longer than Levit: the first movement for Bax lasts 10:59 and for Levit 10:18, while Bax completes the third movement in 18:50 and Levit in 17:14. When listening to them side by side the overall tempos do not seem that different, but Bax has more give and take. The pause near the beginning of the first movement is quite a bit longer with Bax, but it only adds to the drama. I am also impressed with Bax’s dazzling finger-work in the finale’s fugue. If I want to nit-pick, I would wish for more bass — more of the left hand — to come through at times. Overall, though, I find this performance hugely stimulating both technically and emotionally.

It is quite a switch to the Moonlight Sonata, but again Bax excels here, too, by playing the work simply and beautifully. The first movement may be on the fast side, but it flows nicely and the Allegretto second movement is at just the right tempo with sufficient lightness and lift. For me this movement is much more satisfying than in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s rendition, which seems heavy and pedantic in comparison. Bax then tears into the finale, no holds barred, and yet one can hear the individual notes well. This is certainly a refreshing take on one of the piano’s warhorses.

Bax ends his “recital” with two encores, which he has arranged from Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens: both the Chorus of the Whirling Dervishes and the famous Turkish March come up well in his arrangements and conclude the disc on a note of fun. One could say that Bax’s programme goes “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” and that is meant as a compliment. I hope that Alessio Bax will now give us more Beethoven and especially the other “late” sonatas.

Signum’s production values also leave little to be desired. In addition to Bax’s own note in the CD booklet, there is a lucid discussion of the sonatas, with musical examples, by Patrick Castillo.  

Leslie Wright