Fine Beethoven from Alessio Bax

Review by: Jed Distler

baxbeethoven

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

If you happened to see Daniel Barenboim’s 2003 Beethoven master classes on DVD, you might remember an unusually poised young pianist, Alessio Bax, who chose the “Hammerklavier” sonata’s daunting final movement. Fast-forward 11 years to Bax’s recording of the complete work, coupled with the composer’s ubiquitous “Moonlight” sonata. Bax might not take the “Hammerklavier” Allegro at Beethoven’s admittedly optimistic metronome marking, but the hurling momentum, lean yet nuanced textures, and astute ear for voice leading (the amazingly well contoured fughetta, for instance) convey both structure and kinetic energy. Also note Bax’s explosive build-up of the upward alternating broken fifths and sixths leading into the recapitulation, complete with the controversial “misprint masterstroke” Urtext A-sharp (played by Schnabel and Arrau) rather than the more logical yet less quirky A-natural (Brendel and Kempff).

The brisk, appropriately sardonic Scherzo features stinging offbeat accents and a ferocious upward F major scale buttoning the Trio. When I played the Adagio sostenuto for my college piano teacher, he constantly admonished me to “put some beef on that left hand.” I pass that advice down to Alessio! While he certainly sustains his slow basic tempo with the utmost in expressive economy, he does tend to uniformly voice his slow-moving chords, with the top melody line to the fore. Bax brilliantly characterizes the Largo’s madcap mood swings and broken chord transition into the Fugue, while the Fugue itself is a knockout: brisk, clear, clean, and jazzy as hell.

Bax sets an ideal and flexible pace for the “Moonlight” sonata’s iconic Adagio sostenuto, which he plays gorgeously. A few of the Allegretto’s clipped phrase endings and teensy tenutos strike me as what one of my British colleagues describes as “a mite twee.” However, Bax’s rhythmic discipline, focused articulation, and sharp attention to dynamics in the Presto agitato finale make the performance sound faster than it actually is.

Under Bax’s virtuosic fingers, the Chorus of the Dervishes whirls with Lisztian abandon. On the other hand, his overly fast and lightweight treatment of the Turkish March lacks the thrust and force of Beethoven’s original orchestral version, not to mention the once-popular Anton Rubinstein transcription. Reservations aside, this release adds up to an impressive achievement for which Bax should be proud.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Op. 106: Arrau (Philips), Levit (Sony), Op. 27 No. 2: Serkin (Sony), Moravec (Supraphon)

  • BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN:
    Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”); Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor Op. 27 No. 2 (“Moonlight”); Die Ruinen von Athen Op. 113: Chorus of the Whirling Dervishes & Turkish March (arr. Bax)
  • Alessio Bax (piano)

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