Pianist Alessio Bax Offers Two Sides of Brahms in New Recording, Available October 30
“He actually seemed to be channeling the composers: Brahms very ‘inner,’ a man of mystery.” – Dallas Morning News, October 3, 2012
Alessio Bax explores two sides of Johannes Brahms’s music for solo piano in his new album, Alessio Bax Plays Brahms, available October 30 from Signum Classics. On the intimate and introspective side are the rarely performed Four Ballades, Op. 10 and Klavierstücke, Op. 76. The Leeds Competition winner also embraces the virtuoso Brahms, with the pianistic fireworks of both sets of Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. The disc concludes with what Bax has dubbed “a naughty double arrangement” of Brahms’s popular Hungarian Dance No. 5 – first by the Hungarian virtuoso György Cziffra, then further embellished by Bax himself. Previous recordings in the Italian-born musician’s solo discography – Rachmaninov: Preludes and Melodies, Bach Transcribed, and Baroque Reflections – have garnered extensive praise, including a Gramophone magazine “Editor’s Choice” and two American Record Guide “Critic’s Choice” designations.
For the past few seasons Bax has been playing Brahms in recital from coast to coast. The New York Times called his performance of the Ballades at the Metropolitan Museum “notable for its poetic flexibility and lyrical reserve.” San Francisco Classical Voice marveled at the pianist’s performance of the Variations during his Carte Blanche recital at Music@Menlo, stating: “The Paganini Variations [are] exercises in technique, so demanding that even Clara Schumann considered the work virtually unplayable. That didn’t stop Bax, who sailed through it heroically without even taking Brahms’ specified break, playing with undiminished energy though it was the last work on the long program." Patrick Castillo, in his liner notes for Alessio Bax Plays Brahms, calls the piece an “unabashed celebration of virtuosity.”
Earlier this month, Bax performed “a glorious recital” – according to Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News – in Dallas’s new City Performance Hall. “I can’t remember when I’ve heard a piano recital as wholly satisfying as the one performed Tuesday night by Alessio Bax,” declared Cantrell, noting that he “played with the depth and understanding of a grand master. … He actually seemed to be channeling the composers: Brahms very ‘inner,’ a man of mystery … This was artistry of a high level.” Theater Jones concurred: “As far as pianists go, the 35-year-old and still-boyish Bax is certainly one of the best of his generation. His playing was sheer magic and musical gold from the opening Brahms to the final Ravel. ... Technically, Bax was impeccable, meeting all of Rachmaninoff’s considerable challenges with ease.”
In the Q & A that follows, Bax reflects on the musical and technical challenges Brahms poses for a pianist, and discusses the next step in his recording journey. A list of Bax’s upcoming 2012 engagements also follows. Alessio Bax Plays Brahms videos can be viewed at www.youtube.com/alessiobaxpiano, and additional information may be found at his web site: www.alessiobax.com.
A conversation with Alessio Bax
Q: You play the four Opus 10 Ballades, which you describe as stories that unfold as if told by an omniscient narrator. Why is that?
A: At first, they are very hermetic. There are very few notes and you wonder what’s in between them. Some parts of the fourth Ballade, for example, are Brahms at his barest. In the more lyrical pieces the music unfolds with an ease that is breathtaking – beautiful, flowing melodies. But in the Ballades you have to look for the content, and once you uncover it, it’s unbelievable. It’s a challenge to find ways to convey that to the audience.
Q: The Ballades were written in 1854 shortly after Schumann’s suicide attempt. Are they more like Schumann’s piano music than other solo works by Brahms?
A: Schumann was a constant influence on Brahms’s music, both consciously and unconsciously. There are parts that are very Schumannesque, such as the middle section of the second Ballade, which could be straight out of Kreisleriana. But Brahms’s voice is never lost.
Q: Do you always program the Ballades together?
A: Yes, because I see them as a cycle. The first ends in a very tragic D minor that almost kills all hope. The second starts in D major; no matter how many times I play it, I find it mind-blowing. Similar things happen between the third and fourth Ballades, which are in B minor and B major, respectively. It’s more than just key relationships; it’s about contrasts. The way the music connects makes the contrasts that much more powerful. The second Ballade is a fantastic piece on its own, but coming after the first it’s even more incredible: it’s hopeful and positive.
Q: For those who don’t follow piano terms, can you explain the difference between a Capriccio and an Intermezzo? We find both in the Eight Klavierstücke, Opus 76.
A: My unscholarly explanation is that it’s all about character. Capriccios are more whimsical and witty than the Intermezzos, which are more intimate works in general.
Q: In your notes you say that the eight works of Opus 76 almost make up a song cycle. You write, “While painting eight individual scenes, Brahms created a unique universe, with every single note in its proper place.” What do you think Brahms might have called this song cycle?
A: That’s a great question, and hard to answer. There’s something very positive about this opus, which is why I chose to place them as a complement beside the Ballades. There’s a little bit of storm in them, but also a feeling of spring going into fall. There’s a broad range of feelings in these works: a relatively happy lifetime of an individual moving through the seasons.
Q: What is it about Paganini’s 24th Caprice that so captivated Brahms, Rachmaninov, and other composers?
A: Paganini was the embodiment of 19th-century virtuosity, and his Caprice was popular from the moment he wrote it. Then there’s a very practical reason: it has a very square structure. You have four-bar phrases that are repeated, and tonic to dominant and back. It gives composers a big range of things to do. Also, it’s a very catchy tune!
Q: We associate Liszt with this idea of virtuosity, but Brahms’s Paganini Variations are also incredibly challenging. Was Brahms showing his fellow composers that he could do it, too?
A: Brahms wrote it to develop his own technique, and to understand piano technique at a different level. What makes this work so challenging for pianists is that he really covers every musical and technical aspect you can think of – no matter how accomplished you are, technically there’s something likely to stump you. Plus, you have to switch techniques so quickly from one variation to the next. At the end of the day, despite these challenges, it’s all about music – and it’s not supposed to sound that hard!
Q: Tell us about the final piece on the album.
A: It’s something I’ve been playing as an encore for a while now that has its own life. It began as an original transcription by György Cziffra of the fifth Hungarian Dance, but at each performance I started changing it a little bit. By the time I recorded the album, it had become a very different piece! I did this with my last two CDs, which focused on Rachmaninov and Bach. Each has a transcription that I made.
Q: We’ve had Bach, Rachmaninov, and now Brahms. What’s the next stop on your recording journey?
A: In February Signum is releasing two Mozart concertos that I’ve recorded with the Southbank Sinfonia in London: K. 491 and K. 595. I coupled these because they are so different from each other. My very first concerto was K. 467 in C major and it made me fall in love with music. I was eight years old and I thought, one day I must record this piece! But during the last two seasons, I’ve been playing 491 & 595, and they’ve wiped everything else off the board. The album will also have Mozart’s rarely heard Variations on "Come un agnello" from Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode by Giuseppe Sarti. It’s some of the most virtuosic writing you’ve ever heard, full of fun cadenzas in the middle of it all. It’s really challenging, but it’s a fantastic piece.
Q: Your recordings have a “live” atmosphere, and you seem very comfortable making recordings. Is there a secret to how you approach a recording session?
A: I’ve been lucky to put down what I love and want to record, music for which I have something very personal to say – especially with this Brahms recording, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve also been blessed with a fantastic recording team that makes me feel so comfortable. My producer, Anna Barry, has been amazing. She has the ability to understand what I want and to push me in the right direction. Some producers want you to have as many perfect notes as possible. But with Anna, it’s all about finding the meaning, and we’ll redo a take if she doesn’t feel like we’ve gotten there. The sound that [recording engineer] Mike Hatch is getting is wonderful. There is a lot of going back and forth, and I’m constantly adapting and changing during the sessions.
Alessio Bax: upcoming 2012 engagements
Oct 12-13; Bogota, Colombia
Bogota Filarmónica / Enrique Diemecke
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
Oct 17-20; Japan tour
Oct 22; Seoul, S. Korea
Sejong Chamber Hall Recital
Oct 28; Washington, DC
JCC with Chee-Yun
Oct 30; Cincinnati, OH
Matinee Musicale Cincinnati with Lucille Chung
Oct 30; Signum Classics CD release
Alessio Bax plays Brahms
Ballades, Op. 10; Klavierstücke, Op. 76; Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35 (Books 1 & 2);
Hungarian Dance No. 5 (arr. Cziffra/Bax)
Nov 2; Boston, MA
WGBH / Classical New England
Drive Time Live radio performance: Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninov
Nov 4-5; Washington, DC
Dumbarton Oaks Recitals
Nov 10-11; Columbus, OH
ProMusica Chamber Orchestra
Mozart: Piano Concerto, K. 491 - conductor & pianist
Martinu, Mozart, & Bartók w/Vadim Gluzman
Nov 14; New York, NY
CD release event with WQXR
Nov 18; New York, NY
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Alice Tully Hall
Beethoven: “Moonlight” Sonata
Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Bloch: Three Nocturnes for piano trio
Nov 28; New York, NY
Rockefeller University Evening Series
Recital: Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky
Dec 1; Mt. Kisko, NY
Dec 14; St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg Philharmonic / Yuri Temirkanov
International Winter Festival 2012 (opening concert)
Mozart: Piano Concerto, K. 491