Dazzling pianist, Alessio Bax, gives sole Wellington performance at Upper Hutt

Classical Expressions 2019, Upper Hutt
Alessio Bax – piano

Bach: solo keyboard arrangement of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, SD935; BWV 974
Rachmaninov: Variations on a Theme of Corelli
Dallapiccola: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera
Liszt: St. François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux, S.175/1 and Après une lecture de Dante: Fanatsia quasi sonata, S 161

Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Monday 8 April, 7:30 pm

Last Thursday, 4 April. RNZ Concert broadcast the usual Thursday concert from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. It included Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. A generation and more ago it was common to be dismissive of the Grieg concerto, but the classical music world has grown up a bit since then and sensible people with cultivated but unpretentious tastes rate it among the loveliest in the repertoire.

I hadn’t heard of Alessio Bax, but it didn’t take long to be more than a little arrested by the dynamism, beauty and subtlety of his playing. He was born in Bari on Italy’s Adriatic coast, graduating from the Conservatoire there aged 14, won the Leeds Competition aged 22 and his career has followed a remarkable path, though it has not been blessed with the sort of frenzy that has followed Trifonov, Yuja Wang or Lang-Lang. The Editor of Gramophone wrote: “Alessio Bax is clearly among the most remarkable young pianists now before the public.”

He also knows how to construct a programme that is challenging, fascinating and hair-raising. The programme he has been taking around Australia and New Zealand is Italian-themed.

It opened with an unusual piece – an arrangement by Bach for solo keyboard of an oboe concerto in D minor by Alessandro Marcello. There’s the Italian element: Marcello (there were two composer brother – Benedetto and Alessandro, the former being a year younger than Bach). In the dark, and without having read the programme properly, I thought it might have been a group of three Scarlatti sonatas, and even after seeing Bach’s name attached to it, that was still not a silly guess.

There was all the bright, staccato attack, tunes that sounded Italian – more lyrical than was common north of the Alps; and there was Bax’s wonderful dexterity in his handling of the piano, with elegant, adroit decorations that had a perceptible harpsichord feeling, but which his playing turned into a perfectly genuine piano piece. Though I’m sure I’d never heard it before, the slow movement was akin to any other of Bach’s loveliest adagio or andante movements. But it was the third movement that seemed both familiar and combined the sensibilities of Bach and Scarlatti.

Rachmaninov’s La Folia
The programme was Italian themed perhaps, but Italian entirely through other eyes (or ears).  Rachmaninov wrote two sets of piano variations: first on a theme by Chopin (Op 22) and later this, on the ubiquitous ‘La folia’ late medieval tune that was used by many composers; Rachmaninov used the version by Corelli as Opus 42. Considering its importance in the composer’s catalogue it has not been much played here. The range of colours, technical and lyrical demands that Bax fulfilled effortlessly, suggested why not too many tackle it.

Rachmaninov seems to have taken the name ‘folia’ literally injecting moments of madness in certain variations, such as the Vivace and the Agitato, and elsewhere, when the plain little tune is thoroughly dismembered; they seem to break out of the pattern of sharply varied yet harmonious moods, and these Bax delivered with a sort of wild abandon.

After the Interval came the piece that the audience might have felt most dubious about: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera; for Dallapiccola was one of the Italian composers (the other conspicuous ones were Maderna, Nono, Berio) who subscribed to the 12-tone or serial technique invented by Schoenberg and promoted through the famous Darmstadt School. (My own major exposure to his music was a dozen years ago at La Scala, Milan, his one-act opera Il Prigioniero which was certainly a taxing but memorable experience).

He spoke about the piece in the most engaging and fluent way, so that his very personality and his devotion to at least some of the precepts of serialism seemed to break down any immediate knee-jerk reaction to it. The story of its inspiration – dedicated to Dallapiccola’s 8-year-old daughter, the title an echo of Bach’s Notebook (‘quaderno’) for Anna Magdalena.  Bax’s introduction certainly encouraged, predisposed one to listen seriously, unprejudiced, even sympathetically to the music. So in the end it was the tonal and dynamic variety, the commitment of his performance, filled with lyricism and liveliness, that held the attention and led one to hear some kind of serious creative imagination at work.

Two great Liszt pieces
One could find references in Liszt’s music to quite a number of countries other than his native Hungary, but Italy became important to him quite early: for example the Second year, Italy, of his Années de pèlerinage, from which the ‘Dante sonata’ is taken. The two ‘legends’ of 1863 depict two Francises: St Francis of Assisi and St Francis of Paola (his was Liszt’s saint’s name). An opportunity for glittering, joyous story-telling, the saint’s voice contrasted starkly with that of the birds.

Bax linked the two by launching into the ‘Dante Sonata’ without pause, evading any applause. Rather than attempting to depict any of the legendary or classical figures in the great epic, Liszt’s narrative work is largely a description of paradise and hell, contrasting silvery peacefulness and chaotic vengeance. But while the general impression is of a violent narrative dominated by hell, Bax takes every proper opportunity to reveal the intimate, gentle character of many passages. If he’d orchestrated it, the Dante Sonata would have been called a symphonic poem and it strains the resources and the limitations of the most resilient Steinway, which in this case responded impressively.  The piece contains some of Liszt’s most dramatic, ferocious music, which served as a splendid vehicle for Bax’s virtuosity, and his gift of injecting genuine emotional power into this great music.

It was wonderful to hear such exciting, compelling and poetic performances of these two marvellous piano works.

Reflections on musical management in New Zealand 
Given the ways in which the most important arts are so often denigrated and deprived of necessary funding and support, it is disappointing that a musician of Bax’s stature has not been engaged to play more concerts around the country. A great credit to Upper Hutt, but a serious oversight that, for example, Chamber Music New Zealand failed to engage him for half a dozen concerts.

The other issue that such a concert highlighted was Upper Hutt’s support of music and other arts in their excellent Arts and Entertainment Centre, in contrast to their neglect by local authorities elsewhere in Greater Wellington: for example the struggling local chamber music society in Lower Hutt, virtually ignored by the city authorities.

Much greater collaborative relationships should be cultivated among all New Zealand classical music organisations.

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