Only two compositions, Beethoven’s massive Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier” and Mussorgsky’s extended suite Pictures at an Exhibition, comprised the May 11 recital by master pianist Alessio Bax, the last of the “Winter Series” of the [email protected] concerts given at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. The 4 PM recital drew less than a full house, likely attributable to Mother’s Day festivities; but for those who had the good fortune to attend, Bax provided stunning, even glorious, testimony to his digital and expressive gifts, almost comparable to the famous Sviatoslav Richter performance of “Pictures” in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1958.
Few keyboard artists thoroughly know and can nurture the specific sonority of their instrument, but Alessio Bax manages to transform the percussive power of his Steinway into a velvet—pawed lion which can purr like an Aeolian Harp. The 1818 Hammerklavier Sonata Bax calls “a journey through one’s soul.” As a labyrinthine exercise in the conjoining of adjunct and disjunct melodies, huge spans, colossal sonorities, and often probing, anguished introspection in aggressive and alternately lyrical kernels, the work has few equals in the piano repertoire. After a grand Allegro movement at often rapid tempos that belied the careful pedaling to soften the dynamic tissue, Bax adjusted his sensibility to a caustic rendering of the Scherzo, an acerbic dance that threatened to break loose from the confines of “polite” salon music, invoking at the same time an “archaic” element reminiscent of the Renaissance hocket.
With the elongated Adagio sostenuto, Bax entered a pious, virtually sanctified realm, another of Beethoven’s subjective chorales or elegiac searches among the ruins for some transcendent spirituality. Bax entirely transfixed his rapt audience into a silence that became almost self-conscious, to the degree that applause would have violated good taste. And so on to the monumental fugue with which this grand exploration concludes, a paradoxical search for freedom by means of the most structured, “artificial” means of musical procedure. The mixture of sacred and profane elements in the course of this musical evolution has few analogies in art, but I might venture Gaudi’s Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, given its almost “vulgar” amalgam of physical and metaphysical constituents. True, Bax had finger slips and an occasional missed beat, but the sheer stamina and extended arch of his conception never wavered, a realization that an old and venerable head may rest on young shoulders.
Mussorgsky’s 1874 keyboard epic indeed transforms his subjective, “autobiographical” Promenade into a series of musical portraits that culminate in the Great Gate of Kiev, a vision tantamount to the Kingdom of Heaven. The journey well marries excursions into Heaven and Hell, a la William Blake, given its immediate descent in the manner of Dante, right after the introductory bars, into Gnomus, a musical grotesque almost 12-tone in its design and equally as unnerving as Chopin’s A Minor Prelude. The suddenness of motion, its intimations of light even in a dreadful darkness, might have invoked the figure of Shakespeare’s Caliban. The drone bass of The Old Castle granted a rocking motif in the bass that lulled while Bax’s treble sang in the manner of a troubadour.
The epic Bydlo section, a portrait of a heavy Polish ox-cart, rose from the depths of the Slavic soil as well as soul, lumbering with an ineluctable energy. The faster sections, like Tuileries, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, and Limoges, delighted us in their aerial colors, toccatas in brisk and brilliant filigree, executed with a carefree aplomb. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle alternated pompous, declamatory and cantorial self-absorption against wheedling sycophancy, only to yield once more to the ubiquitous Promenade, now in block-chord regalia. With the Catacombs, Bax reminded us of the debts Mussorgsky owes to Liszt and his Totentanz, the Promenade theme’s having gained a creeping supremacy of mortal coils in the bass line. The electric burst to Baba Yaga and Russian folklore catapulted our sensibilities both skyward and Hell-bound at once, the percussive power of the keyboard marshaled by Bax in dramatic gestures, as rich in pregnant silences as in fiendish sounds.
With an upward rush to judgment we found ourselves surrounded by Russian bells – the great love of Mussorgsky and compatriot Rachmaninov – an Easter ceremonial saturated in pomp, majesty, and a sense of the immanence of the numinous possibilities of human experience, colossal yet tinged by a consciousness of tragedy. With the last, resounding chords, the Menlo audience well rose as one in ecstatic applause and cries of “Bravo!” to elicit but one encore, Mussorgsky’s little Hopak from his opera Sorochinsky Fair, transcribed by Rachmaninov, as is only fitting that these two icons of Russian music should meet at this spectacularly memorable concert.