Alessio Bax

Review: Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

The Shape of Things

The second event of the Dallas Symphony's Mendelssohn Festival, with pianist Alessio Bax, is exceptional.

published Sunday, September 25, 2011

As it turns out, the decision by Music Director Jaap van Zweden to open the new season of the Dallas Symphony with a Mendelssohn Festival was a really good idea. On Saturday, a crowded Meyerson Symphony Center heard three of the composer's more popular works: the Scottish Symphony No. 3 in A minor Op. 56, the delightful Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 26, and the overture with two names and one Opus number (Op. 26): The Hebrides and/or "Fingal's Cave."

The piano concerto is one of the overlooked jewels of the repertoire. Like all of Mendelssohn, it is tuneful and energetic. Its virtuosity is never of the bang-bang type of Liszt, who kept Mendelssohn's concerto in his repertoire, but a more elegant and charming display of sustained melody and extremely nimble fingers. Fortunately, Italian pianist Alessio Bax has both the nimble fingers and the easy charm required to give the concerto a marvelous outing. Other than a little too much use of the sustaining pedal in the first movement, one imagines that Mendelssohn himself, reportedly an exemplary pianist, could not have played it better.

Bax was both relaxed and serious, yet still intense when the music required. The octave scales in the main thematic material of the first movement could not have sounded less Lisztian, with Bax accentuating the motivic relevance as opposed to empty flash.

In his hands, the slow movement was just lovely, bringing out the very Protestant-sounding chorale in such a manner as to match the ambiance of the divided violas and celli that introduced it. The finale was fast and rousing without giving in the temptation to rush. Stylistically, Bax demonstrated the requisite tongue-in-cheek attitude that this mischievous music requires. Van Zweden was with him every step of the way and the Dallas Symphony was at its very best, taking its cue from Bax's interpretation.

The rest of the program was equally excellent. "Fingal's Cave" is probably Mendelssohn's most popular work for orchestra. Its gently rolling opening is instantly recognized by even the most casual concertgoer. Like all of Mendelssohn, this overture is beautiful from start to the unexpectedly demure finish with a single note in the flute accompanied by super-soft pizzicati in the strings. Van Zweden was probably at this best in this overture. Every phrase was perfectly shaped and right in its place in the overall architecture.

All evening, van Zweden demonstrated much more independence of hands than he has in the past. The left hand was precise without being pedantic and his right hand was remarkably expressive. While he still tends to tense up on occasion, he is much more relaxed on the podium these days without sacrificing the intensity that has brought him to the notice of the world.

The Scottish Symphony is a more difficult piece to pull off, mostly because of its length. At 50 or so minutes, Mendelssohn's musical language begins to tire the ear. Even though this is, admittedly, his best work for orchestra and full of one striking melody after another. The composer's run-on sentences never take a break to reflect and ruminate on the abundance of material.  He even demands that the four movements be played without pause. Negative space is virtually non-existent. Still, he surprises us at the end with a stirring, but incongruous, four square theme boldly proclaimed by the horn section.

Van Zweden's interpretation can be summed up in one word, and that is "shape." Like in the overture, he starts the piece with a solid notion of where it is going. Every phrase starts and finishes, but is always leading the listener on to the next. Thus, van Zweden carries the listener along on wave after wave of magical Mendelssohnian melody right to the end of the entire symphony.

In this, he is helped by absolutely superb performances by all of the orchestra. Many times, the violins play tune after tune in unison and octaves. Their precision and intonation made it sound like one single instrument. The rest of the string section sounded equally impressive. The woodwinds, especially the clarinets, covered themselves in glory and the horns played the final melody with a burnished sound of remarkable depth.

The ever-elegant Mendelssohn would have approved.


◊ The review of the first concert in the Mendelssohn Festival is here.

◊ Here's the remainder of the lineup for the Mendelssohn Festival:


2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25

Jaap van Zweden, conductor

Alessio Bax, piano

MENDELSSOHN Hebrides Overture

MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto No. 1

MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 3, Scottish

8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Sept. 29 and 30

Jaap van Zweden, conductor

Ava Pine, soprano

Layla Claire, soprano

Gregory Warren, tenor

Dallas Symphony Chorus | Joshua Habermann, director

MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 4, Italian

MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 2, Hymn of Praise


8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2

Jaap van Zweden, conductor

Soovin Kim, violin

Jorge Federico Osorio, piano

MENDELSSOHN Ruy Blas Overture

MENDELSSOHN Concerto for Violin and Piano

MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 5, Reformation Thanks For Reading

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The Shape of Things
The second event of the Dallas Symphony's Mendelssohn Festival, with pianist Alessio Bax, is exceptional.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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