BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No 5 (Bax)
It is almost impossible not to like Alessio Bax. Since his Leeds Competition win in 2000 he has confirmed his pianistic and musical qualities but also acquired the markings of a modern public figure: from posting recipes for classic Italian dishes on his music and travel blog (including a virtuoso tiramisu) to sharing a cute video of lullabies (also released as a CD) for his and his pianist wife’s two-year-old daughter. At the same time, his discography has not shied away from bold choices. His Beethoven debut with the Hammerklavier Sonata (11/14), a Gramophone Editor’s Choice that met with unanimous raves, is now followed up with the zenith of Viennese classic concertos.
Despite so many Emperors in the pantheon, there is still room for a new one, as Leif Ove Andsnes’s much-lauded account has shown. Broadly speaking, where Andsnes brought out the power and profundity of understatement, Bax is more on the majestic side, yet without deviating into the occasional exaggeration of Brendel and Rattle. Keeping the architecture tight, Bax provides an immensely solid performance that is not afraid of spelling out the sound and fury, as, for instance, in the opening flourishes, where he rather underlines things compared to Gilels (at least four versions available on various labels), Andsnes and even Brendel, who all favour less detailed, more sweeping waves.
Those who like the slow movement to go in one basic tempo may raise an eyebrow at the initial incongruity between the orchestral proposition and Bax’s drastically slower response. This may well be intentional and soon a middle-ground accommodation is negotiated. Bax’s playing is consummately lyrical. Even so, his expressive moulding and the very forward recording quality make for an overall result that is more immediate than transcendent. The finale sits ideally with his extrovert temperament and his life-affirming energy invites comparison with the best on disc. Fine though the South Bank Sinfonia are, they do not rival the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for personality and colour.
The fillers are a carefully chosen juxtaposition of late-ish and very early Beethoven, enabling Bax to reveal more searching qualities in his tone-colours and characterisation. All in all, this is an impressive disc, which repays repeated listening and can stand comparison with many of the biggest names.