It’s good to see the Bari-born pianist Alessio Bax prefacing his Pictures with a smattering of Scriabin, especially in this anniversary year. He’s made a number of well-regarded recordings to date, among them Baroque Reflections, Beethoven sonatas and a disc of piano duets with his wife Lucille Chung. He seems to gravitate towards two venues—Snape Maltings in Suffolk and the Wyastone Concert Hall in Monmouth—both of which are good for solo recitals. Purely in terms of sound Signum are up against the likes of Hyperion and BIS, whose recent piano recordings are among the finest in the catalogue.
As per usual I played this new release from beginning to end before sitting down to listen again and make notes. Unusually, though, I found myself transfixed by these very individual performances. At first I thought them a little idiosyncratic, but subsequent auditions changed all that. Scriabin’s third sonata—Drammatico, Allegretto, Andante and Presto con fuoco—is a complex and finely calibrated piece that really demands a heightened sense of colour and a corresponding feel for musical shape. Bax certainly has those attributes; more important, he has the knack of making one hear the music anew.
What I thought was eccentricity on Bax’s part is in fact the very opposite; one has only to think of Horowitz to be reminded how the piece can be rendered second to showmanship. What we get here is a thoughtful, beautifully chiselled performance; Bax is dramatic too, especially in the Allegretto, but even then he retains proportion without sacrificing power. Goodness, this is ear-tweaking stuff; it’s chockful of insight and possessed of that rare thing, an absorbing sense of intimacy, of being in the presence of something quite magical. Also, Mike Hatch and Chris Kalcov’s spacious and truthful recording serves the music well.
Bax is easeful and open-hearted in the first of Scriabin’s Op 2 Morceaux, whose lyrical impulse belies its designation as an étude. This pianist’s control of touch and dynamics takes one's breath away; as for the left-handed Prélude it's a keyboard miracle that's apt to have the same effect. I really do hope that Signum can persuade Bax to record more Scriabin, for his oneness with this eccentric—and much-maligned—composer is evident in every bar. Surely even the nay-sayers will be won over by these remarkable, redefining performances. They certainly deserve to be ranked alongside Garrick Ohlsson's equally impressive traversal of the Poèmes (review).
That same liberating intellect is brought to bear on Mussorgsky’s Pictures. The opening Promenade is uncluttered by needless nuance and there’s a clarity to Bax’s playing that augurs well for what’s to come. Happily, such plainness doesn’t preclude the possibility of contrast or character, and that’s an achievement in itself. Similarly The Old Castle loses nothing of its forbidding presence even when it's essayed with such elegance. As for Tuileries the squabbling children are drawn with a bright precision that also brims with energy.
At every turn one senses an elevated sensibility at work, one that’s alive to every detail of this lovely score. For instance I simply can’t recall a better Bydlo, its lumbering progress charted in playing of ideal shape and weight. Even the various Promenades are imaginatively done. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and The Marketplace at Limoges are as deft as one could wish and Goldenberg and Schmuyle are strongly contrasted. Catacombae and Cum mortuis major in dark sonorities, which Bax delivers with his customary blend of thought and thrill. Not only that, he startles with the amount of detail he unearths in in Mussorgsky's gentler passages.
Bax’s forensic abilities are especially evident in Baba Yaga, whose taut rhythms conceal music of real imagination and interest. The Great Gate of Kiev, so thrilling in its various orchestral guises, is even more so when played by pianists of this calibre. All too often this grand finale is overwhelming in the wrong sense, but here Bax manages to balance majesty with scrupulous musicianship. Also, he harnesses the piano's percussive power—its strike and shimmer—more effectively than most; indeed, I've rarely have I heard those bells toll so tellingly, or those final chords ring out with such exultation.
The encore as it were is Mussorgsky’s darkly fantastical Night on a Bare Mountain, arranged for piano by Konstantin Chernov and Bax himself. You’d think it impossible to top that performance of Pictures but the abundance of detail and suppleness of rhythm here only deepened my admiration for this fine pianist. It’s a performance of such insight and artistry, the likes of which one seldom hears in this age of rampant self promotion. As always Bax illuminates and intensifies, and that makes for an unusually radiant and affecting close. Then again everything about this recital surprises and delights.
All-conquering performances in fabulous sound; quite possibly my Recording of the Year.