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Alexander Nikolayevich SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No.3 in F-Sharp Minor, Op.23 [18:31]
Etude in C-Sharp Minor, Op.2, No.1 [2:50]
Prelude for left hand alone, Op.9, No.1 [2:44]
Modest Petrovich MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [31:17]
Night on the Bare Mountain (arr. Mussorgsky/Chernov/Bax) [10:21]
Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Saxmundham, UK, 23-27 January 2015

I may be wrong but it seems to me that in the last twenty years we have seen the greatest number of new young pianists come along - more than in any similar period in history. It may also be true when it comes to the violin and other instruments. This phenomenon is something to be celebrated in this hugely material world in which money appears to loom larger than ever.

Having written the above paragraph I then did a little research only to discover that while his name is new to me Alessio Bax is 37 and winner of the first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2000 among others. Note to self: research first before writing. However, he is a pianist that has come to be known, even if not by me, in the past two decades. Bax was born in Bari, Italy though the booklet notes give his antecedents as Dutch, German, Belgian and British, including Sir Arnold Bax - some pedigree.

"No composer has had more scorn heaped on him or greater love bestowed", said the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia of Scriabin. Leo Tolstoy described his music as "a sincere expression of genius." However, his biographer Faubian Bowers wrote that "No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death." There was a time not so long ago when it would have been almost impossible to have run to earth any records of his music and it is only in the past 40 or so years that Scriabin's music has been rediscovered. This year marks a hundred years since his death aged only 44 and so it is timely to reassess his music and to recognise its unique place in music history. He may well have been influenced by Chopin - and pianistically who since has not been. Nevertheless, Scriabin ploughed his own very individual furrow and created a whole new sound-world. It is fascinating, while listening to his Etude in C-Sharp Minor, Op.2, No.1, to remember that he was only 14 when he wrote it but his ideas are clearly already taking tangible shape. No-one who didn't know would guess that the 17 year old's prelude op.9 no.1 was written for left hand alone since it is so sonically rich. Bax's playing is brilliantly illuminative. In the Scriabin, which I think is even more impressive than the Mussorgsky, his interpretation is very fine indeed and matches any other I can recall, especially in the big-boned third sonata. There is so much drama in Scriabin and so much feeling that close attention to detail is an imperative. Bax brings out every nuance and every change in mood which often occurs with little warning.

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is probably his best known work, especially in its highly popular orchestration by Ravel. It is always a treat to hear it in its original piano version and I find it best to enjoy each version as a completely different work. There are so many highlights in Bax's interpretation but I especially enjoyed the Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques which really captured the essence of the tiny unhatched chicks frolicking in their egg-shells. Equally the hustle and bustle of Limoges market-place is superbly brought to teeming life. Bax's treatment of the gentle passages is so magical, sometimes with fingers barely caressing the keys, creating real contrast as when the ending of Cum mortuis in lingua mortua segues into the beginning of La cabane sur des pattes de poule, 'Baba-Yaga'. Bax says in his introduction that he "... decided to thicken it up in places, to give it a richer, wider and perhaps more dramatic palette". He certainly succeeds in making it a truly memorable listen.

Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain is a transcription by Konstantin Chernov of the original orchestral version that the composer wrote between 1866-67 and about which he said it was "Russian and original, ... hot and chaotic" which it certainly is. With further tweaking from Bax we have something just as monumentally terrifying as any orchestral version delivers. Bax is on fire here with frantic rushing up and down the keyboard, each hand seemingly in hot pursuit of the other. It leaves one feeling totally out of breath until relief comes when things calm down at around seven minutes in and we move towards a relaxed end.

This is a massively enjoyable 66 minute disc and I shall be looking out for the Brahms and Beethoven discs shown in the brochure.

Steve Arloff
Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)


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