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.

#Classical365: 30 – Liszt Piano Concerto No.2

After my botched attempt at getting to hear a new piece of music on Day 30 of my year-long listening project, I end up coming up in time to catch the end of the first half of the RSNO’s concert from Usher Hall broadcast live on Radio 3.

Liszt’s second piano concerto is on the bill. I’m not sure how I feel about Liszt. His scores are fiendish for pianists to play: music written by a pianist with long fingers for himself to show-off with. Liszt’s music is always pleasant to listen to. It’s decorative, romantic-sounding and (in the case of the second piano concerto) has a breathtaking finish bound to send the crowd out of the auditorium feeling very pleased with themselves. It’s not shallow, but its not terribly demanding either. It feels like I’m being asked to marvel, but that I won’t be moved emotionally. I think I’d prefer to marvel because I’ve been moved emotionally.

I’m now approaching the end of the first month of the listening project. I’m a twelfth of the way through. So far its turned out to be a pleasure, even if the writing element is more demanding than I thought it would be. If the works aren’t planned, then there can be a sense of panic when I decide what I’m going to listen to. Unexpectedly, its changed how I approach using my time. I’m now more aware of how long this process takes and, as a result, am starting to think more ruthlessly about how I can use my writing time. Is this paying anything back? Where is the return on the investment? If I’m going to be spending 30-60 minutes a day writing, do I need to be spending a bit more time on different writing endeavours which might see a return?