Alessio Bax’s Formidable Brahms Debut

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

The challenges of Brahms’ piano works suit Alessio Bax’s big technique, multi-colored sonority, and innate musicality. He imbues the Op. 10 Ballades’ first two pieces with both long-lined lyricism and fiery power while assiduously integrating the final piece’s improvisatory impulses into a fluid whole. However, Bax’s toying with No. 3’s rhythm in the outer sections undermines the composer’s subtle syncopations and displaced accents. I have no complaints about Bax’s sensitive, intelligently shaped interpretations of the Op. 76 piano pieces, aside from a few mannered rhetorical gestures that owe more to “tradition” than to anything in the score (those generic stresses and sectionalized phrasings in No. 2, for example).

Bax launches into the Paganini Variations at an optimistic clip that his formidable fingers manage to maintain while still finding room to let an inner voice linger here and there, or to vary his voicing upon repeats. A few glib moments persist, such as Bax’s gliding through the outer-register skips and middle-register chords of Book I Variation 8, or the slightly arch diminuendos that wrongly “set up” Variation 13’s downward octave glissandos; the latter have to emerge directly from the end of the preceding phrase in order to retain their scintillating effect.

Still, for the most part Bax’s joyful panache is right on the money, as in his amazingly brisk and supple dispatch of the triple-time Book II Variation 5. Incidentally, Bax proceeds straight from the end of Book I into Book II’s first variation, instead of restating the theme. For an encore Bax dusts off Georges Cziffra’s garish rewrite of Brahms’ Fifth Hungarian Dance (the C-sharp minor transcription Cziffra recorded in 1956, not the G minor 1983 version), speeds up the basic tempo, and polishes its jagged edges, while adding a few flourishes of his own for good measure. Altogether a fine, often stimulating and excellently engineered release .

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Op. 10: Michelangeli (DG); Op. 35: Kissin (RCA); Op. 76: Goode (Nonesuch)

    Four Ballades Op. 10; Piano Pieces Op. 76; Variations on a Theme of Paganini Books I & II Op. 35; Hungarian Dance No 5 (arr. Cziffra-Bax)

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