Alessio Bax: Bach Transcribed
What people are saying
“There are some terrific moments in Bax’s performance” International Piano Magazine
“ … a level of technical control that gives new meaning to the word ‘awesome’ … Furthermore, Bax retains tonal beauty and definition even in the loudest and most sonorous passages” Gramophone Magazine
“… the transcriptions can only be mastered by someone with an amazing technique. Audiences still like to be astonished. Alessio Bax astonishes along with the best of them … in short, this disc is a must. “ Fanfare Magazine
Alessio Bax piano
Release date:29th Jun 2009
In today’s world of accessibility and hybrid crossover, the debate about whether Bach should be played on the modern piano is no longer relevant. However you wish to experience Bach or any other early master, a number of performance styles are available to you. Alongside the ancient music purists there are equally confirmed piano purists, whose gods are the great concert pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Godowsky, Siloti, Busoni, Petri, and company took the music of Bach and dressed it in the garb of their contemporaries, partly to display their pianistic prowess, but also in a genuine attempt to bring what they regarded as great music to the masses. In their own view, these virtuosos treated Bach with veneration and respect. We continue to enjoy their transcriptions today for two reasons: (1) Bach’s music is wonderfully resilient; and (2) the transcriptions can only be mastered by someone with an amazing technique. Audiences still like to be astonished.
Alessio Bax astonishes along with the best of them. His well-chosen program is bookended by two major works of inordinate technical difficulty: Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of the First Violin Sonata and Busoni’s monumental Chaconne from Partita No. 1. In both, Bax shows great control and a rare ability to “terrace” contrasting dynamic levels, even at fast tempos (for example, the final movement of Godowsky’s Violin Sonata). Like Hamelin, his technique is secure enough not to have to add ritards or arpeggiated chords when the going gets tough.
Between these two works, Bax gives us a program of encores in which he recreates the tender, lyrical side of the virtuoso persona. When Alexander Siloti arranged the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, or the Sicilienne from the Flute Sonata, or Egon Petri made his transcription of “Sheep May Safely Graze,” the idea was to entrance their audience with playing of great beauty: laying out the melodic line like a series of gems against a warm velvet backdrop (to continue the metaphor), with intricate filigree to set it off. Bax understands that and is fully capable of realizing it.
Hyperion has covered this territory with a series of excellent CDs from different pianists. Even so, there are rarities in Bax’s program. Petri’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” and Kempff’s “Zion Hört die Wächter singen” are less well known than the transcriptions by Ignaz Friedman (and Harriet Cohen also, in the case of the second). The Kempff begins gently enough, but with the gradual addition of octave doublings and fuller harmonies, it reaches a grand apotheosis reminiscent of the organ. Bax’s own transcription of the Largo from the F-Minor Concerto (yes—by Alessio, not Arnold) brings a comparatively modern touch in its detached accompaniment, and a welcome calmness before we are plunged into the massive statements and dazzling decoration of Busoni.
In short, this disc is a must.
Fanfare Magazine, Phillip Scott
Alessio Bax goes back to Bach for an unmissable disc of transcriptions. In the realm of Romantic Bach transcriptions, Alessio Bax’s stylistic perception and palette of tone-colours have considerably deepened since his “Baroque Reflections” release (Warner, 11/04), together with a level of technical control that gives new meaning to the word “awesome”. Legato lines are full-bodied at all dynamic levels, while thick chords and rapid passagework betray not one speck of struggle. Furthermore, Bax retains tonal beauty and definition even in the loudest and most sonorous passages, achieved without the least banging.
Here, Godowsky’s outrageously upholstered treatment of Bach’s G minor Solo Violin Sonata receives its most effortless and imaginatively nuanced reading on disc. Bax’s mesmerising melody/accompaniment distinction in Egon Petri’s Sheep May Safely Graze makes Petri’s venerable recording sound comparatively dry and matter-of-fact. Bax’s sustaining power and subtle pedalling prevent his broad tempi for the Siloti Air on the G String and the Bach/Busoni Chaconne from dragging, although his gentle rounded performance of Kempff’s Zion bort die Wachter singen doesn’t change my preference for Busoni’s plainer transcription. Bax’s own treatment of the F minor Keyboard Concerto’s sublime slow movement captures this pianist at his lyrical apex. He replicates the pizzicato accompaniment to such tasteful and eloquent effect that you don’t miss the string section. Signum’s roomy, lifelike sound perfectly complements Bax’s extraordinary pianism. A disc no “hyphenated Bach” fan should miss.
Gramophone Magazine, Jed Distler
The young Italian pianist Alessio Bax is already a veteran of many prestigious competitions, not least as winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2000. He is of course a consummate technician, and this latest disc offers an enticing selection from the rich repertoire of Bach transcriptions from pianist-composers (or composer-pianists) who flourished around the turn of the 20th century.
Godowsky’s Bach transcriptions aren’t played much, so it’s good to hear Bax take on the G minor solo Violin Sonata. Pianistically, this is harder to play than it sounds, something that pianists as a rule don’t like. Bax negotiates the difficulties with some aplomb, although sometimes a feeling of physical exertion overpowers poetic repose. This is fine in the second-movement fugue and the visceral finale – where his blistering account outshines Scherbakov (Marco Polo) – but elsewhere the music needs just a little more room to breathe. Bax might well blame Godowsky, as the music is over-written in places. But he can’t really blame Saint-Saëns for heavy-handedness in the Bouree from the B minor solo violin Partita; listen to Stephen Hough’s account (Virgin) and the music sparkles with a chic charm that Bax misses.
The Siloti arrangements are beautiful, and are sensitively handled by Bax; so too are Egon Petri’s arrangement of Sheep may safely graze and Wilhelm Kempff’s of Zion hort die Wachter singen. Nevertheless, despite his control, Bax’s playing is rather cool, and there are moments when a little more emotional involvement is needed to elevate the music to the realms of the sublime. The dry acoustic doesn’t help, and the music is never really allowed a seductive halo of sound.
The most monumental piece is saved until last: Busoni’s re-imagining of the famous Chaconne, transcribed for piano as if it was originally an organ work (Busoni believed the conception was too grand for solo violin, identifying the tension between the music’s language and its medium that adds to the work’s power). There are some terrific moments in Bax’s performance, but taken as a whole it is rather skittish, lacking grandeur and cumulative force. Some bits are too fast, others are undermined by an unsteady basic tempo, and once again the sound doesn’t have a natural ring that would add to the impression of scale and opulence.
International Piano Magazine, Tim Parry
- Violin Sonata No.1 in G minor: Adagio – Transcribed L. Godowsky – 5.07
- Violin Sonata No.1 in G minor: Fuga – Transcribed L. Godowsky – 4.09
- Violin Sonata No.1 in G minor: Siciliana – Transcribed L. Godowsky – 3.51
- Violin Sonata No.1 in G minor: Presto – Transcribed L. Godowsky – 3.18
- Sheep May Safely Graze – Transcribed E. Petri – 5.18
- Air from the Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major – Transcribed A. Siloti – 5.33
- Gavotte (Tempo di Borea) from the Violin Partita No.1 in B minor – Transcribed C. Saint-S?ens – 3.19
- Andante from the Violin Sonata No.2 in A minor – Transcribed A. Siloti – 4.52
- Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in Eb major – Transcribed A. Siloti – 2.18
- ‘Zion h?rt die W?chter singen’, from the Cantata BWV 140 ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ – Transcribed W. Kempff – 5.17
- Largo from the Keyboard Concerto in F minor – Transcribed A. Bax – 3.43
- Bourre? from Cello Suite No.3 in C major – Transcribed L. Godowsky – 4.30
- Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 in D minor – Transcribed F. Busoni – 14.28