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Forgotten Dances

Alessio Bax (piano)
Download only Available Friday 6 September 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: August 2022
Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex, United Kingdom
Produced by Anna Barry
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Tom Lewington
Release date: 6 September 2024
Total duration: 65 minutes 4 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph © Marco Borggreve.
This recital celebrates dance in its infinite variety. Dance is among the most deeply rooted of human impulses and has been celebrated in a kaleidoscope of changes as far back as 300BC in tomb paintings in Egypt and 800BC in cave paintings in India. Ranging from celebrations of religious faith, the glories of wine (the gods of Dionysius and Bacchus, ‘O for a drought of vintage … tasting of Flora and the country green / Provencal song and sunburnt mirth’) was unlike, say gratitude for the journey from birth to fruition (‘the seed time and the harvest’) with a reminder that in Spain there are over two hundred dances reflecting agricultural bounty and finally, the sheer physical joy of movement and liberation. Claudio Arrau, the great South American pianist once confessed to me that without a mix of dance and Jungian analysis he would never have survived the rigours of a concert pianist’s career. Ceremonial, elegant, ferocious or erotic dance has always been with us. Where would we be without dance?

By opening his richly diverse programme with Bach, Alessio Bax implies that if the description of him as ‘the father of all music,’ and particularly of dance music, is a cliché ignoring predecessors such as Lully, Monteverdi and Purcell etc, his Partitas, English and French Suites transformed past tradition to such a degree that it makes their originality an understandable claim. For Albert Schweitzer ‘Bach is an end. Nothing precedes him, everything leads to him’. Such impassioned rhetoric is perhaps comprehensible when you consider Bach’s unique blend of tradition with vital pointers towards the future. Bach was never less than alert to contemporary trends. Chopin’s reverence for Bach, for example, would hardly have occurred if Bach was bound by tradition, and many of his later works show an increased love for polyphonic and canonic procedure. Hard not to add that for the pianist Boris Berezovsky, angered by what he saw as an English show of contempt for Rachmaninoff, spoke of his distinctive form of Russian part—writing as that of a ‘Russian Bach’. Again, Bach’s music may be inspired by his Lutheran faith yet he provides no less security for those without a religious foundation. For Friedrich Gulda, Bach is a refuge, a pillar of moral support, a guide throughout life.

More specifically the English Suites derived their title not through anything recognisably English but through a tribute to Charles Dieupart who although French was resident in London. As with its five companions the A minor Suite differs from the French Suites by including an introductory Prelude, a virtuoso flexing of muscles before the traditional Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, and with the inclusion of two Bourées before the Gigue. A further sense of freedom for the player comes when Bach makes clear that he was happy to allow his interpreter leeway regarding ornamentation; a collaborative rather than exclusive sense of creation. Ever anxious to rescue Bach from the past both Andras Schiff and Tatiana Nikolayeva insisted that ‘Bach is the most romantic of all composers’. Bach’s assurance and depth of feeling (notably in the Sarabande) may be a far cry from the ‘Romantic Agony’ of the nineteenth century, the doubts and questionings of composers such as Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, yet at the same time you can never deny that he put ‘new wine into old bottles’.

Stepping aside from Bach’s blend of acceptance and adventure, Bartók’s fierce and uncompromising vision had all the shock of the new. Andor Földes, the Hungarian pianist, recalled receiving a letter from the composer begging him not to include his Sonata in his New York debut recital as such enterprise would be dismissed as eccentricity and could seriously damage his career. Reaction to the Six String Quartets, in particular, was hostile and unforgiving and so it is important to assert that such music, greatly admired today, was unlike, say, Prokofiev’s early music (the Toccata, Suggestion Diabolique, etc) never an example of novelty or an undermining mischief (‘I will show it is quite possible to give a recital without Chopin’) but by a conviction as strong as Bach’s. The Dance Suite was composed for orchestra in 1923 and was later transcribed for piano by the composer in 1925 with the proviso that it should be ‘not too difficult’. Bartók, himself a superb pianist, never included it in his recitals (he had misgivings about the validity of his transcription) and it was premiered by György Sándor in 1945. By his own admission he wanted to imitate a wide variety of peasant music. No 2 is Hungarian in character, No 3, a mix of Hungarian and Romanian elements, No 4 is Arabic and No 5 is an amalgam of influences without any particular national style. No 6 is prefaced by a wish for ‘the brotherhood of peoples, in spite of all wars and conflicts’.

Bartók is followed by an extreme change of climate, though there is common ground between Hungary and Spain in the stress on a vividly maintained national and instantly recognisable idiom. Interweaving Falla’s Danza del molinero (Miller’s dance) and Danza del Fuego (Ritual fire dance) with Godowsky’s gilded version of Albéniz’s Tango provides an extreme contrast, the first, music more vibrant than subtle—rich reds and golds, never pastel shades—the second, very much of the salon and ballroom. Falla’s Dances originated in the ballets ‘El sombrero de tres picos’ and ‘El amor brujo’ and the Ritual fire dance’s flame-throwing gestures have made it a popular encore for virtuoso pianists. Here Spain’s secrets and undertones are swept aside in the manic rhythm of the dance, the reverse of those ‘Spanish evenings scented with carnations and brandy’ that Debussy detected in Albéniz ‘El Albaicin’ (Iberia). The Albéniz/Godowsky Tango on the other hand returns us to a civilised view of music once considered salacious. Once banned by the Catholic Church the tango later became a favourite of the present Pope, Pope Francis. Such a change would have amused Ravel who, annoyed by what he saw as puritanism, threatened to write a tango specially for the Pope.

Stepping briefly outside my role as annotator, may I say that if Spanish music is primarily associated with Spanish pianists, Alessio Bax’s performance of Granados ‘El amor y la muerte’ from the ‘Goyescas’, at Japan’s 1997 Hamamatsu Competition where I was a jury member, was an astonishing and haunting tribute to his empathy for the Spanish idiom; living proof that great music is not the exclusive property of a single nationality.

Liszt’s four Valses oubilées form an enigmatic part of his dark-hued, experimental final years, a time he described as his ‘musical after-life.’ The titles of so many of his later works, Unstern (literally, 'unstarred'), Nuages gris, La lugubre gondola 1 and 2 and the drastic change from the early glitter of ‘La Campanella’ to the ‘Angelus’ from the Années de Pèlerinage Book 3—from virtuoso aplomb to sobriety—tell their own tale of regret and introspection. The first of the Valses oubilée (the only one of Liszt’s later works to have entered the general repertoire) is fleeting and hallucinatory, a bittersweet reflection of what he came to see as an extravagant and misspent past.

Ravel’s La valse (originally entitled ‘Wien’) takes the waltz into yet another dimension, a savage erasing of all possible gentleness or nostalgia. Sketched before the 1914-1918 war it holds a familiar and much loved genre up to a distorting mirror, an ‘impression of fantastic and fatal whirling.’ Ravel’s piano arrangement is skeletal in outline and leaves too much of his orchestral original unsaid. And so, in common with other pianists, Alessio Bax fills out the score with authentic details and emendations.

Rachmaninov’s Suite from Bach’s E major violin Partita was published in 1937. Here, not surprisingly given Rachmaninov’s stature as a pianist, everything is transformed in an elaborate play of inner voices and harmonies to become wholly pianistic. Even Prokofiev—no admirer of Rachmaninov and himself a master of classical pastiche—must have marvelled at the way his compatriot achieved such personal charm and piquancy in the second movement Gavotte.

Finally, a blaze of virtuoso glory in the encore; György Cziffra’s arrangement of Brahms Hungarian Dance No 5 in D flat. Initially described in Paris as ‘greater than Horowitz,’ and in London as combining ‘the precision of a metronome with the electrical discharge of a thunderstorm’ Cziffra’s sky-rocketing bravura became the stuff of legends. His arrangement provides a dazzling end to a celebration of the dance, the twists and turns from one extreme to another of a sequence as startling as it is exhilarating.

Bryce Morrison © 2024

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