Q & A: Alessio Bax Plays Rachmaninov, A “Dream Come True” Recording Project
By Albert Imperato
First-prize winner of the 2000 Leeds Competition and, more recently, a 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, pianist Alessio Bax is a performer whose star is rapidly on the rise. His new Rachmaninov recording is due for a June 28 release in the U.S.
Following his fall 2010 recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times critic Steve Smith noted the “rightness” of the Italian pianist’s playing: “Everything in his program unfolded with an ease, precision and beauty so seemingly effortless that the music appeared to live and breathe of its own volition.”
Other reviewers and writers have praised his “extraordinary virtuosity” and the “elegance” of Bax’s artistry – not to mention his “elegant” good looks. As Time Out New York puts it, “Bax ravages the keyboard, remolding the ivories into sonic sculptures that light up an auditorium."
In addition to solo recitals, concerto and chamber music concerts around the world, he also performs duo recitals frequently with his wife, pianist Lucille Chung. An avid blogger (Have Piano, Will Travel), Tweeter (@alessiobaxpiano) and Blackberry user, Bax is also a self-professed food, photography and AAdvantage Miles addict.
Speaking with Alessio Bax is a joy on many levels: he’s as funny as he is eloquent, informed on many subjects, enormously warm and unpretentious, and extremely enthusiastic about what he does. He’s also a great admirer of Russian composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), to whom he pays tribute with a new album out this month on Signum Classics, and whom he discusses in the Q & A that follows.
Q: You make it clear in the notes that you wrote for your new album that Rachmaninov has long been a hero of yours.
AB: That’s absolutely true and it has been that way since I started. Rachmaninov’s own recordings are what I’ve listened to most – he was such a fantastic pianist. Sure, I’ve listened to many other things, but over the years his recordings are what I come back to most frequently. His playing is very much like his music in that it has so many layers: you can go back and listen to it over and over again and always discover something new.
Q: Between your blog and the notes in the new recoding, it’s clear that you have a knack for writing. Is it something you enjoy doing?
AB: I like to write about music. I recently wrote program notes for the Carte Blanche Brahms programs that I’ve put together for Music@Menlo, where I will perform in July. I like to explain why I chose this or that piece, or why I put a certain program together. There’s a process I go through in my mind before I decide what to play, so I figure I might as well write down what I’m thinking about.
Q: You’ve called your new album “a collection of visions and landscapes.” Tell us about that.
AB: I was referring specifically to the ten Preludes Op. 23 that are the foundation of the new recording. Rachmaninov amazingly manages to create a single world in each of these Preludes, though they make perfect sense together. But each prelude depicts something different, and there are no major mood changes within a single prelude. In a way, it reminds me of the Russian landscape, which I know through so many tours there: It’s so vast that you can travel for long periods of time without any major changes to what you see around you. It’s not like Italy where the topography changes much more quickly. My Russian tours brought me from Moscow all the way to Khabarovsk, Far East Siberia near the end of the Trans-Siberian railroad!
Q: It is frequently noted that Rachmaninov had very large hands and that his writing presents huge challenges for performers. What are both the challenges, and the rewards, for a pianist who plays Rachmaninov’s music?
AB: Rachmaninov was probably the most amazing pianist whoever lived. He could play anything, so his virtuosity was beyond question, but he also had incredible ear for the instrument and knew how to write in a way that made the piano sound at its best. Chopin and Liszt were certainly great pianists, but Rachmaninov’s music has more and deeper layers. Nothing is just difficult for difficulty’s sake. It actually helps to know he was writing works to play himself, because even if something seems impossible, there must be a way out of it. Mostly he was considerate. Having said that, though, I will say that my experience recently preparing his Cello Sonata made me wish I had larger hands!
Q: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 couldn’t be more popular, but have any of his solo works have attained similar popularity?
AB: His solo works remain popular among pianists, but they probably haven’t had the same impact with the general public. His early works are never played. A few of the Preludes, such as the G minor or a few others, are played out of context. But it’s safe to say that they haven’t had the impact of the concerti. He’s written a few larger-scale solo works, such as the two Sonatas, the Corelli Variations and the Chopin Variations, but most of his solo works are small. In his career he played music by Beethoven, Chopin, and other composers: he didn’t program his music exclusively.
Q: The moods of the Op. 23 Preludes are very varied, but what is striking about several of them was the way they evoke the feeling and movement of water, such as the big torrents of sound in Prelude No. 2 in B-flat major.
AB: Those big Russian rivers! Water is, of course, so important to so many cultures, and it was very important when he moved to America as the oceans kept him far away from his homeland: He really left his heart back in Russia when he emigrated. But the Preludes were written before he left Russia. The moods here are inspired by the elements, the Earth, and by human emotions. He was an incredibly human composer. There is some dreaminess in his works, but the works are always earthbound. The last of the Op. 23 Preludes – No. 10 in G-flat major, perhaps my favorite in the set – is probably the most otherworldly and dreamy: it’s that way for three quarters of its length, but even then, it comes back to earth. He is strongly rooted in the Russian tradition, in Tchaikovsky, and his own homeland. He left his roots behind when the world, without the technology we take for granted today, was a much larger place. He toured as a pianist and conductor and was constantly on the road.
Q: Was it intimidating to include your own transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise on a tribute album such as this?
AB: It was, but there was a reason for choosing to do this. It is one of my favorite songs of all time. The melody is beautiful, but the harmonic setting is so incredible. It was originally for piano and voice, and he also made an orchestral arrangement. The transcriptions that others have done of the Vocalise included changing and adding things, and I wanted to make it as pure as possible. I wanted to create an illusion of having the voice accompanied and to keep the textures clear. The harmonies are thick, but the melody is very simple: it’s a hard contrast to recreate on piano. Almost every finger on both hands is playing something. You have to split your hands to play multiple parts. It’s very challenging!
Q: Do you like the process of making recordings?
AB: I do. I made my last three recordings with a great team. Anna Barry has produced them and has done a wonderful job. The engineers have been great. They create a very positive atmosphere for me. I really try to challenge myself and dare myself when I am recording. It’s actually a very enjoyable and relaxing process. I listen back a lot, and have constant feedback, and I push myself to try things out. It goes well with my personality. I try hard not to get too worked up! When I record something I tell myself, “This is the best I could do on that day.” When I go back and listen in ten years I hope I’ll enjoy it. But I also hope that I’ll want to make improvements. It would be bad if I didn’t want to change something that I recorded a while ago. We want to feel like we can always improve! That’s why we are playing things that are 300 years old. A recording is not really a “definitive” thing for me. Thinking of it that way would be sad for me.
For more information about Alessio Bax’s new Rachmaninov album, Preludes and Melodies, visit the Signum website:
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