Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata No 3 in F sharp minor, Op. 23 (1898) [18:31] Trois morceaux, Op. 2 (1889)
No. 1 in C sharp minor: Étude [2:50] Prélude et nocturne pour la main gauche seule, Op. 9 (1894)
No 1 in C sharp minor: Prélude [2:44] Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Pictures from an Exhibition (1874) [31:47] Night on a Bare Mountain (1867) (arr. for piano by Konstantin Chernov and Alessio Bax) [10:21]
Alessio Bax (piano)
rec. January 2015, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Hyperion
Pdf booklet included SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD426 [66:13]
It’s good to see the Bari-born pianist Alessio
Bax prefacing his Pictures with a smattering of Scriabin, especially
in this anniversary year. He’s made a number of well-regarded
recordings to date, among them Baroque
sonatas and a disc of piano
duets with his wife Lucille Chung. He seems to gravitate towards
two venues – Snape Maltings in Suffolk and the Wyastone Concert
Hall in Monmouth – both of which are good for solo recitals. Purely
in terms of sound Signum are up against the likes of Hyperion and BIS,
whose recent piano recordings are among the finest in the catalogue.
As per usual I played this new release from beginning to end before
sitting down to listen again and make notes. Unusually, though, I found
myself transfixed by these very individual performances. At first I
thought them a little idiosyncratic, but subsequent auditions changed
all that. Scriabin’s third sonata – Drammatico,
Allegretto, Andante and Presto con fuoco
– is a complex and finely calibrated piece that really demands
a heightened sense of colour and a corresponding feel for musical shape.
Bax certainly has those attributes; more important, he has the knack
of making one hear the music anew.
What I thought was eccentricity on Bax’s part is in fact the very
opposite; one has only to think of Horowitz to be reminded how the piece
can be rendered second to showmanship. What we get here is a thoughtful,
beautifully chiselled performance; Bax is dramatic too, especially in
the Allegretto, but even then he retains proportion without
sacrificing power. Goodness, this is ear-tweaking stuff; it’s
chockful of insight and possessed of that rare thing, an absorbing sense
of intimacy, of being in the presence of something quite magical. Also,
Mike Hatch and Chris Kalcov’s spacious and truthful recording
serves the music well.
Bax is easeful and open-hearted in the first of Scriabin’s Op.
2 Morceaux, whose lyrical impulse belies its designation as
an étude. This pianist’s control of touch and dynamics
takes one's breath away; as for the left-handed Prélude it's
a keyboard miracle that's apt to have the same effect. I really do hope
that Signum can persuade Bax to record more Scriabin, for his oneness
with this eccentric – and much-maligned – composer is evident
in every bar. Surely even the nay-sayers will be won over by these remarkable,
redefining performances. They certainly deserve to be ranked alongside
Garrick Ohlsson's equally impressive traversal of the Poèmes(review).
That same liberating intellect is brought to bear on Mussorgsky’s
Pictures. The opening Promenade is uncluttered by
needless nuance and there’s a clarity to Bax’s playing that
augurs well for what’s to come. Happily, such plainness doesn’t
preclude the possibility of contrast or character, and that’s
an achievement in itself. Similarly The Old Castle loses nothing
of its forbidding presence even when it's essayed with such elegance.
As for Tuileries the squabbling children are drawn with a bright
precision that also brims with energy.
At every turn one senses an elevated sensibility at work, one that’s
alive to every detail of this lovely score. For instance I simply can’t
recall a better Bydlo, its lumbering progress charted in playing
of ideal shape and weight. Even the various Promenades are
imaginatively done. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and
The Marketplace at Limoges are as deft as one could wish and
Goldenberg and Schmuyle are strongly contrasted. Catacombae
and Cum mortuis major in dark sonorities, which Bax delivers
with his customary blend of thought and thrill. Not only that, he startles
with the amount of detail he unearths in in Mussorgsky's gentler passages.
Bax’s forensic abilities are especially evident in Baba Yaga,
whose taut rhythms conceal music of real imagination and interest. The
Great Gate of Kiev, so thrilling in its various orchestral guises,
is even more so when played by pianists of this calibre. All too often
this grand finale is overwhelming in the wrong sense, but here Bax manages
to balance majesty with scrupulous musicianship. Also, he harnesses
the piano's percussive power - its strike and shimmer - more effectively
than most; indeed, I've rarely have I heard those bells toll so tellingly,
or those final chords ring out with such exultation.
The encore as it were is Mussorgsky’s darkly fantastical Night
on a Bare Mountain, arranged for piano by Konstantin Chernov and
Bax himself. You’d think it impossible to top that performance
of Pictures, but the abundance of detail and suppleness of
rhythm here only deepened my admiration for this fine pianist. It’s
a performance of such insight and artistry, the likes of which one seldom
hears in this age of rampant self promotion. As always Bax illuminates
and intensifies, and that makes for an unusually radiant and affecting
close. Then again everything about this recital surprises and delights.
All-conquering performances in fabulous sound; quite possibly my Recording
of the Year