Album Review: Alessio Bax plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Southbank Sinfonia on Signum

This is a humble unfussy interpretation of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto given by Alessio Bax with the Southbank Sinfonia and their principal conductor Simon Over.

Bax is a good match for the rich sonorities and sometimes complex demands of Beethoven’s writing. He avoids the temptation of self-indulgence, presenting a clean immediate interpretation of the material that helps demystify the work. Legatos sections have a graceful fluidity, and the articulation a business-like precision. The rubatos (in the Beethoven concerto and throughout the album in fact) are textbook Bax too – just the right amount of pull-back of speed before returning back to the original intent. That gives the interpretation a beguiling human quality too. 

The wind and brass dominate throughout the first movement (the strings seem low in the mix – perhaps they needed a few more players to balance things out). Their chance to shine is undoubtedly at the beginning of the second movement where the main subject is a collective stage whisper ahead of the piano entry. Throughout the second movement the strings appear to gain in terms of balance, though the wind and brass are still strong.

A near-equilibrium is reached in the third movement between the two orchestra sections suggesting the entire work has been a tussle for the attention of the piano solo line.

A big hand must go to the timpani player Louise Goodwin whose delicately articulated phrase (the rhythmic material underpinning the entire concerto) is something to behold.

The other half of the album sees Alessio Bax on his own, opening with a Bach-infused F minor Prelude – is followed by Beethoven’s compact and little heard piano sonata number 27. Both works are for me the pleasing elements on this album. The second and concluding movement of the sonata in particular is especially charming, at various stages giving Bax an opportunity to display his trademark fluid legatos and unfussy rubatos.

The Contredanses are curious things that motor along at a gentile pace, and are a fascinating listening study, but not necessarily a fulfilling listen. The concluding Polonaise repays the listener with something a little more resolute.

Alessio Bax playing Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 (with the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Simon Over) and works for solo piano is released on Signum Classics and available via Spotify.

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Review: Alessio Bax at Wigmore Hall

From time to time the concerts I end up attending remind me of a long-held aspiration that my reviews act as a sort of listening diary – primarily for me and maybe others – that help jog my memory. A sort of postcard of an aural memory.

Reviews on this blog don’t always turn out like that. At least, I rarely go back to them once they’re written and posted. But I’m reminded of that original aspiration, reflecting on Alessio Bax’s Leeds Piano Festival recital yesterday at Wigmore Hall.

There was something rather special about the experience. I’m not speaking for others in the auditorium when I say that – I’m not reporting it was special – just reflecting that my attention in this event was focussed more squarely on the pianist and his playing than his interpretation or the music itself. My focus appeared to be on the results of Alessio Bax’s craft and industry at the keyboard.

I first identified where my attention was focussed during the piano arrangement of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor, and specifically the second movement adagio.

Within only seven or so minutes of the recital getting underway I experienced a unexpectedly powerful emotional response to what I was hearing. What I heard was achingly beautiful – constructed with an unusual combination of strength and courtesy – that it felt as though I’d been pinned to the back wall of the auditorium.

So unexpected was that reaction that I spent the rest of the recital focussed on what it was about Alessio’s playing that I connected with as a listener.

First, was the strength he brought to bear on the keyboard. This wasn’t bombastic or domineering, rather it was measured, controlled and efficacious.

Summoning up and deploying that strength was done in an unfussy way. Alessio Bax’s movements were fluid throughout his body, but they were also isolated which meant, from my perspective, that the energy was focussed on the areas of the body that really mattered – hands, fingers and arms.

The combination of seeing and hearing that strength meant I felt safe in the knowledge that this was a solid performer. That doesn’t mean safe and unadventurous, more that the performance felt secure.

There were examples of this in the Rachmaninov Correlli Variations (and to a lesser extent in the Franz Liszt Apres une Lecture du Dante) that called for considerable dexterity at the keyboard and, in places, rich, thick, thundering chords. These variations make demands on the pianist because of rapid shifts in pace, tone, and character often with little warning to the listener. That in itself requires stamina, and as far as I could see from row N, considerable core strength.

The second unexpected observation was Bax’s seemingly courteous and respectful connection with the sound he was producing. In truth, this observation took time after the recital to emerge for me, but its something again from my perspective which appears at the moment as a defining characteristic of Bax’s style.

At various points – usually the slowly, more introspective movements, Bax seemed to pause on chords, allowing a variety of different sounds to emanate from the piano. It was as though he was paying due respect to all of the activities the instrument was engaged in long after his fingers had pressed the keys down.

There was still pace to his playing (none of what I heard was self-indulgent) but there was time for all of us to pay due deference to the sound being produced. And that created a sense that both instrument and instrumentalist were connecting on the same level.

The Leeds Piano Festival is a series of recital showcases featuring previous finalists of the Leeds Piano Festival including Lars Vogt, Sunwook Kim, and Alessio Bax. The Festival continues with concerts in Leeds on Saturday 19, Monday 21, Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 May.  The concert series also features aspiring new talent – the Lang Lang Scholars.

The Leeds Piano Competition gets underway on 6 September. All of the remaining competition rounds will be streamed live on Medici.TV. The final is on 15th September and will also be broadcast on BBC Four.

Leeds Piano Competition artistic director Adam Gatehouse appeared in a Thoroughly Good Podcast with journalist Cross-Eyed Pianist Fran Wilson. It’s available to listen on Audioboom, Spotify, and iTunes.