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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Op 72 ‘Emperor’ [37:34]
Praeludium in F minor WoO 55 [2:29] Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor Op 90 [11.53]
Contredanses WoO 14 [7.31]
Polonaise in C major [5.25]
Alessio Bax (piano)
Southbank Sinfonia/Simon Over
rec. 2017, St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD525 [64.52]
Alessio Bax is a former winner of both the Leeds and Hamamatsu International Piano Competitions. He has released a series of critically acclaimed recordings for Signum including an excellent coupling of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and Moonlight Sonatas.
I have a lot of time for Bax and have enjoyed some of his previous recordings enormously. However, this recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is not his finest hour and is something of a disappointment. The concerto starts well with Bax conjuring up a sense of nobility and grandeur with his initial flourishes. Simon Over’s tempo in the opening exposition is well judged and the Southbank Sinfonia capture the heroic essence of Beethoven’s immortal music. Bax’s playing thereafter is technically assured but he seems to be going through the motions and his performance sounds a little stale. Some of his chords lack weight and depth and the playing seems to continually polish off Beethoven’s rough edges. There needs to be grit in the oyster to convey the necessary sense of conflict and struggle in this music and it is sadly absent in this performance.
Bax and Over adopt a relatively fast tempo for the Adagio second movement and it comes across more like an Andante. Bax produces some ethereal colours in the opening descending scales and the sequences of trills is well executed. However, he seems to gloss over the ensuing melody rather than letting us savour this golden songlike utterance. The movement as a whole seems rushed and the poetry which one hears in great performances of the work is not there. The one redeeming feature of the concerto is the final Rondo where Bax and his orchestral partners demonstrate much more engagement with the music. The music has rhythmic drive and a rough boisterous energy which is very appealing. Bax executes Beethoven’s rapid fire scales with brilliance and the lyrical episodes are played beautifully.
The other substantial work in this recording is Beethoven’s Op 90 Sonata, which was written in the summer of 1814 and is in two movements. Beethoven gives the performer instructions in German rather than the usual Italian. The first movement is marked ‘Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchhaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck’ (with liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout). Bax brings a rough, terse energy to this movement which I enjoyed enormously. There is close attention to phrasing, articulation and dynamics and a rich and varied range of colours and sonorities. The second movement is marked ‘Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen’ (Not too fast and conveyed in a singing manner). Bax allows the bucolic lyricism of the piece to blossom in a charming way.
The three fillers in the disc are all lesser known works by Beethoven. The contrapuntal lines of the Praeludium reflect the young Beethoven’s preoccupation with Bach’s keyboard preludes. Bax gives a cultivated performance but keeps his foot on the pedal more than I would have liked. The contredanses are played with charm and elegance and I was interested to hear a theme used in the ‘Eroica’ emerge in the seventh dance. The final Polonaise is played with poise and elegance and is imbued with a cheery sense of brio.
Alessio Bax is a great pianist but we do not hear him playing at anything like his best in much of this recording.