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The Power and the Spirit

New York
Grace Rainey Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
11/05/2010 -  
Johannes Brahms: Ballades, Opus 10
Serge Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Opus 42
Béla Bartók: Dance Suite, Sz. 77
Enrique Granados: El amor y la muerte (from Goyescas)
Maurice Ravel: La Valse

Alessio Bax (Pianist)

A. Bax (© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

European geneticists have a lot to answer for. In less than a week, two European pianists in their early 20’s have performed at the Met after giving concerts with the greatest orchestras and conductors in the world. One must ask whether a whole generation of these very young artists is being raised in a secret Euro-cavern, ready to descend and conquer the world.

David Kadouch showed what sensitivity and decorum can do to bring out all the color and dynamics of music. Last night, Italian pianist Alessio Bax, first prize winner of the Leeds and awarded the Avery Fisher Center Grant, showed an entirely different, but equally mesmerizing face of piano music.

His technique is absolutely flawless, as shown in the inhumanely difficult György Cziffra arrangement of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody encore. Mr. Bax’s sensitivity was exhibited in some sturdy playing of the Brahms Ballades.

But what Mr. Bax has above all is a volcanic energy, an energy which is stored inside, ready to erupt at any moment. Brahms’s first Ballade was played with all the poetic feeling one needed until the grand sempre crescendo of the allegro section. Mr. Bax didn’t only bring it up in volume, but the depth of the music increased as well, producing a fullness which filled the auditorium

Perhaps he was produced more resonance than reverence in the final prayer-like Ballade, but this hardly detracted from the full dramatic effect.

The Rachmaninoff misnamed Corelli variations (“La Folia” goes back to 16th Century Portugal) had no particular technical problems for Mr. Bax. He swept through them without wasting a moment. True, the rare flashes of Rachmaninoff humor (as in variation 5) were swept undercover, but Mr. Bax was more agitated than possible in the 13th variation, and 21st variations, and was suitably lyrical towards the middle. It was digitally stunning and generated thoughts about other composers Mr. Bax could play with this high-powered energy. At first, one thought of Medtner. But then it became obvious that Mr. Bax had no composers of his homeland (though he now lives in New York). Busoni comes straight to mind, and I have the feeling he could tackle the Piano Concerto with all the grandeur it deserves.

The second half was devoted to dances which were plainly undanceable. Starting with Bartók’s piano version of the Dance Suite. Again, one was amazed by the energy and pinpoint playing. The rolls up and down the piano were taken with breathtaking daring. During the second part of the second dance, Mr. Bax became actually frenetic, without losing the pace. It sounded purely Bartók, it didn’t sound ethnic (dances from Arabia? Hungary? Rumania), but this was sheer fireworks.

These pieces and the final Ravel arrangement of La Valse were thunderously successful, filled with spirit and energy, worthy of any great pianist. Mr. Bax may have been stomped, though, by Granados' Ballade of Love and Death. Yet I doubt if anyone of youthful temperament can make this successful. Nothing is particularly Iberian here. The piece wanders on into psychological alleys and dramatic situations. Mr. Bax’s inner psyche is still, happily, evolving. Both love and death are obviously familiar to him, but Granados' maturity will come in time.

The two encores were splendid. First Egon Petri’s elegant arrangement of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, and then the aforesaid Liszt-Cziffra.

After this, I mused, Alessio Bax probably has the solution to the world’s energy crisis. It should be simple to harness even a fraction of the artist’s energy– a very clean energy, to be sure. The world could be both energized and radiant for as many decades as Mr. Bax has to perform.

Harry Rolnick



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