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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New Music Biennial 2017 – Anna Meredith’s ‘Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra’

Anna Meredith’s Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra at #NMB17 was a revelation. Meredith’s work is a joyous and immersive thing; the composer and producer is a creative beacon.

Seven years after its commission by the Southbank Centre, Anna Meredith’s Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra received a second (and third) performance at SE1, the first concert in the New Music Biennial 2017 – the weekend-long celebration of ‘new and nearly new music’.

Meredith’s music is a mesmerising mix of rhythmic and textural geekery. Running at fifteen minutes, the composer fuses the spectacle of beatboxing with an orchestral accompaniment that imitates, approximates, and celebrates the talent the concerto spotlights.

Beatboxer is, as you’d expect, riven with an irresistible pulse right the way through. Heads bobbed and feet tapped in the Clore Ballroom as the hypnotic beat, supported by electrifying demonstrations of vocal dexterity from the four beatboxers on stage, thrilled the audience.

We marvelled, oohing and aahing at the soloists visceral art. Sublime moments of exoticism giving us permission for a spot of self-reflection on a hot summer’s evening.

Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra is a technically demanding piece for everyone on stage, and hugely satisfying for audience and musician alike – the looks on the faces of the Southbank Sinfonia made that clear to all.

Anna Meredith never disappoints. Hers are riveting composition, creations that make her and her work appointments to listen.

The performance jostled with the busy-ness of the Festival Hall bar too, adding a special buzz to proceedings. Anna Meredith and her contemporaries keep places like Southbank alive. Gratitude and pride aren’t sought, but they’re surely deserved.

The New Music Biennial 2017, supported by PRS Foundation, runs until Sunday 9 July. All events are free, some require tickets from the box office.

St John’s Smith Square 2016/17: Southbank Sinfonia play Shakespeare in Music

Southbank Sinfonia forms an important part of the St John’s Smith Square season this year. This event was an inventive presentation that combined dialogue and speeches of Shakespeare’s plays with incidental music written for a range of RSC productions by a wide range of British composers.

Samuel West – his voice maturing more and more like his father’s as the years speed past – was a beautiful indulgence. So too Patricia Hodge, Southbank Sinfonia patron, Lila Clements and Maggie Service. Benedict Salter gave us a mysterious, possibly sinister yet alluring Puck. David Threfall sometimes seemed a little lost, especially at the end of The Tempest.

It was an interesting exploration of the familiar and unfamiliar which unwittingly competed with the beauty of the poetry. In the context of a theatrical production the incidental music would have made sense, but here with excerpts from each play giving a flavour of proceedings, the inherent lack of development in the music was laid bare.

The flip side was hearing different approaches to musical illustrations scanning nearly a century.

The most notable contrast was that between the musical orthodoxy of Rosabel Watson’s 1925 score to King John and the brooding and sinister writing of Edmund Rubbra’s Macbeth composed 21 years later.

Jonathan Dove’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 2002 with its prominent use of vibraphone worked best as a concert experience in amongst a programme which was essentially a multi-discipline root through the RSC archive. It was a good idea but as a whole, I think I wanted a work with more development to contrast the excerpts.

Southbank Sinfonia, a group of post-graduates and young professionals played pit band under the direction of conductor Simon Over. They gave us verve and thunder in places, although the event made it difficult for them to shine beyond the limitations of the music.

Their next engagement at the National Theatre – providing live accompaniment for a new production of Amadeus – is a tantalising prospect. Previews 19 and 20 October.