In today’s world of accessibility and hybrid crossover, the debate about whether Bach should be played on the modern piano is no longer relevant. However you wish to experience Bach or any other early master, a number of performance styles are available to you. Alongside the ancient music purists there are equally confirmed piano purists, whose gods are the great concert pianists of the 19th and early twentieth centuries.
Godowsky, Siloti, Busoni, Petri, and company took the music of Bach and dressed it in the garb of their contemporaries, partly to display their pianistic prowess, but also in a genuine attempt to bring what they regarded as great music to the masses. In their own view, these virtuosos treated Bach with veneration and respect. We continue to enjoy their transcriptions today for two reasons: (1) Bach’s music is wonderfully resilient; and (2) the transcriptions can only be mastered by someone with an amazing technique. Audiences still like to be astonished.
Alessio Bax astonishes along with the best of them. His well-chosen program is bookended by two major works of inordinate technical difficulty: Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of the First Violin Sonata and Busoni’s monumental Chaconne from Partita No 1. In both, Bax shows great control and a rare ability to “terrace” contrasting dynamic levels, even at fast tempos (for example, the final movement of Godowsky’s Violin Sonata). Like Hamelin, his technique is secure enough not to have to add ritards or arpeggiated chords when the going gets tough.
Between these two works, Bax gives us a program of encores in which he recreates the tender, lyrical side of the virtuoso persona. When Alexander Siloti arranged the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3, or the Sicilienne from the Flute Sonata, or Egon Petri made his transcription of Sheep May Safely Graze, the idea was to entrance their audience with playing of great beauty: laying out the melodic line like a series of gems against a warm velvet backdrop (to continue the metaphor), with intricate filigree to set it off. Bax understands that and is fully capable of realizing it.
Hyperion has covered this territory with a series of excellent albums from different pianists. Even so, there are rarities in Bax’s program. Petri’s Sheep May Safely Graze and Kempff’s Zion Hört die Wächter singen are less well known than the transcriptions by Ignaz Friedman (and Harriet Cohen also, in the case of the second). The Kempff begins gently enough, but with the gradual addition of octave doublings and fuller harmonies, it reaches a grand apotheosis reminiscent of the organ. Bax’s own transcription of the Largo from the F-Minor Concerto (yes—by Alessio, not Arnold) brings a comparatively modern touch in its detached accompaniment, and a welcome calmness before we are plunged into the massive statements and dazzling decoration of Busoni.
In short, this disc is a must.