With final, even “fatal,” closing chords of Ravel’s La Valse, piano virtuoso Alessio Bax concluded the formal recital at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, Sunday, February 5 for the Steinway Society the Bay Area. A devoted audience, having eschewed the opening parts of Superbowl LI, rose in frenetic appreciation of Mr. Bax’s extraordinary gifts; and this, despite poor scheduling and over-booking by the Trianon administration, whose bureaucratic or commercial ambitions had precluded the pre-concert lecture and had another recital in the building’s small concert hall, simultaneously.
Bax opened with a piano transcription of Mozart’s 1789 Clarinet Quintet’s final movement, a theme and six variations that incurred a Romantic interpretation, courtesy the Bax’s aggressive pedal. Brightly colored and genially optimistic, the theme evolved according to Mozart’s canny sense of dynamic, originally meant for Anton Stadler’s affecting clarinet playing in Mozart’s time. The first martial variation segued into a florid version, with a chromatic bass line. Variation three, in A Minor, added a touch of Sturm und Drang to the otherwise sunny climate. The fourth demonstrated Bax’s ability for a more concertante sonority, an orchestral sound that would dominate his later work in Scriabin and Ravel. A meditative Adagio, the fifth adumbrated what Bax would achieve for the mystical Scriabin in the third movement of his sonata; the sixth variation by Mozart returned to the theme for the coda, briskly ornamental, sprightly, and often reminiscent of the contemporary “Duport” Variations, K. 573.
Music by Schubert concluded the first half of the Bax recital. The Sonata in A Minor, D. 784 (1823) came at a time when both music publishers and the general public preferred the Biedermeier mentality of safe, conservative, and complacent expression, not the towering inferno of Romantic Agony Schubert presented them here. A sense of fateful, tolling bells infiltrates the opening Allegro giusto, marked by an appoggiatura in measure two that either sighs or rages as the work progresses. Again, Bax’s pedal contributed the fretful demonism of the first movement, in which the transition into E Major only increased the darkness. If the rhythm suggested a tarantella, it merely exacerbated the chilling desolation Schubert expresses, likely in reaction to the first news of illness that would eventually consume him. The Andante, in F Major, remained relatively static, another unsettling effect, given the tremors of movement one. Its middle section under Bax gave the impression of a C Major Impromptu, accompanied by a penumbra of triplets. The finale, Allegro vivace, could have been a toccata in triplets and runs in contrary motion. Impassioned and hectic, the music presented us with emotional ambiguity, since even its modulations into the major echoed Schubert’s setting of the Rueckert 1823 song, Lachen und Weinen, which simultaneously laughs and weeps.
The post-intermission piece, Scriabin’s 1897 Third Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 23, rather confounded Bax’s attempts in his brief lecture to characterize its Janus-like approach to tradition and the future. Set in four movements, the work no less attempts to compress – via the persistent attacca designation – its content into the one-movement or “poem” structure that came to dominate his evolving sense of form. Scriabin’s own solipsistic vision bestowed the title, “States of the soul” upon this ambitious, knotty score. The first movement – or impulse – Scriabin marks Drammatico, and it surges forth, “Prometheus Unbound.” The search for liberation, flight, and light – think of the paintings of J.W.N. Turner – can equally apply to Daedelus and Icarus, depending on one’s tragic vision. Driving rhythms and close imitation had us mesmerized by the Scriabin vortex, which soon evaporated into the Allegretto second movement, whose martial impulse seemed to reject its proclaimed intent of consolation. Rather, the lyrical, “watery” Andante nodded to Scriabin’s idol, Chopin, and that composer’s sense of romantic reverie. The last movement, Presto con fuoco, unleashed composer and performer, each lunging for victory amidst a “sea of troubles.” Despite reminiscences of the tender Andante, the music achieved a temporary, frenzied rapture, only to collapse to the forces of dissolution, a sentiment not far removed from the program’s final offering, Ravel’s La Valse.
Ravel’s La Valse, in its solo-piano version, first came to my attention through the late Leonard Pennario, whose own brilliant rendition Alessio Bax may have surpassed. Ravel admired the waltz – that peasant dance, which sprang from Bavaria, Austria, and the Tyrolese mountains – and he compressed his thoughts (via Schubert) originally in his Valses nobles et sentimentales. La Valse, however, bears a post-WW I sensibility, and its tendency to explode at its conclusion mirrors all of Ravel’s major dance forms, especially the Bolero. Ravel no less admired Johann Strauss II, whose rarified elegance glows in a piece like Roses from the South. Bax began with those misty, ambiguous bass harmonies in imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth, so that the resolution into D Major only emerged as the imaginary dancers took their partners. Viennese lilt soon merged in a decidedly Lisztian manner with Parisian curlicues from Offenbach and Suppé. As the music proceeded, the accents and syncopations became troubled, colliding into each other, bitter and ironic. Bax’s capacity for wild colors – say, the sheer strength of his trills and glissandi – jerked and prodded us into a vision of imminent disaster. Indeed, the mesmeric effect assumed the quality of a Totentanz, the death of an epoch. And the ensuing, jubilant response to Bax’s electrifying playing led to one encore, what Bax called “a different kind of waltz,” the sweet Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) by Fritz Kreisler.