Fort Worth — Contemplating Alessio Bax’s program for his The Cliburn recital, I thought about pop bands playing cover tunes. It’s long been my philosophy that such covers need to be either as similar as possible to the original recording, or so very different that little comparison is possible.
When playing a warhorse such as Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, the famous “Moonlight” Sonata, a musician has a parallel choice. The first movement is played so often by children in their first years of lessons that it is easy to forget the soulful musicality of the piece, so the performer must do something truly special to get our attention—so that we really hear the music. The two interpretations that have the best chance for success are those that play it close to the hip, not deviating a smidge from the score, and those that try for something quirky and strange—a reinvention.
On Nov. 12 at the Kimbell Art Museum, Bax chose the first of these two possibilities, but in such a sophisticated way that even a conservative interpretation wrought new magic. Bax wisely eschewed extensive rubato in the first movement, marked Adagio sostenuto, instead creating a dignified, elegant sustained line. He attacked the thorny third movement, marked Presto agitato, at a breakneck clip, but Bax is a musician with technique up to the task.
In the center of the program was Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor, Op. 23. This sonata is less cerebral than some of Scriabin’s later work, lending itself to an easy accessibility not necessarily associated with this composer. Again, Bax’s beautiful phrasing—his ability to create a musical line—was an asset.
Last on the printed program was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. For those of us accustomed to Ravel’s orchestration of the piece, the piano version can seem thin and devoid of color. But while a single piano can hardly hope to reproduce the tonal colors of a full symphony orchestra, Bax maximized the colors available on his instrument. Although the first “Promenade” was a bit over-loud, the remainder was a fascinating read on a familiar piece. The concluding “The Great Gate of Kiev” was unusually quick, but seemed propulsive rather than rushed.
Bax’s encore was Kreisler’s violin encore Liebeslied, arranged for piano by Rachmaninoff. It proved an interesting counterpoint to the Mussorgsky: it is a piano piece which we’re used to hearing in its orchestral rearrangement, while the Kreisler is a violin piece completely reimagined by Rachmaninoff, with the addition of considerable Russian-Romantic flourishes. Alessio Bax is an elegant, thoughtful pianist, an impression merely underscored by his encore.