Alessio Bax: Concert (14th May) and Masterclass with the Lang Lang Foundation Scholars (15th), Howard Assembly Room.
An almost unbelievably good concert is made more delightful by the addition of an intimate, hugely educational, and inspiring masterclass.
This week it was Leeds’ great honour and privilege to host the incredible pianist Alessio Bax for an evening concert and morning masterclass as the inaugural events of the first Leeds Piano Festival—a new organisation formed as a companion to the renowned Leeds International Piano Competition, founded by Dame Fanny Waterman all those years ago in 1963.
Concert on 14th May
Bax entered the stage with an assured, charismatic presence, wearing a slim-fitting suit, skinny tie, and perfectly arranged white pocket square. With hardly a pause between taking his seat and beginning his playing, Bax virtually danced into the opening Allegro movement of Bach’s arrangement (for solo keyboard) of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto. The sound is warm and lively—by turns lyrical and dance-like as the music requires—and every phrase is exquisitely shaded, with Bax frequently imitating the terraced dynamics of Baroque instruments. The piece progresses into the famous, soulful Adagio, which is played with utter beauty, warmth, clarity, refined touch, and fine use of the pedal. The final fast movement, in a gigue-like rhythm, rushes on with an impressive mixture of staccato and legato articulation which always remains lyrical. As the piece finishes, it seems that a whole soundworld is revealed between Bax and the piano, even within simply one of his trills. The playing is full of depth and grace.
The next piece, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli, begins from the same sort of soundworld in which the Bach-Marcello ended, albeit in a much more reflective Sarabanda tempo, with each variation wandering more and more from the conventions of Baroque music from which Rachmaninov takes his initial idea. As the music moves in this way—thoroughly leaving the eighteenth century for the late nineteenth and early twentieth of Rachmaninov’s own usual idiom—I am amazed by Bax’s ability to deliver the complexities and dense textures of that idiom with a limpid clarity—the whole performance is as clear and pure as water. This was as true even when the piece was celestial and considerate in the high register of the keyboard, as when it was thunderous in the bass. There is also great humour in the piece, which Bax delivered with extremely high skill, although—and this might be said of his whole performance and stage presence—a little po-faced and sniffy. But to make too much of this would be the epitome of nit-pickery. Indeed, I cannot really justifiably complain at all, since I was so transfixed by the piece’s climax, I could not even turn the page of my notebook to continue my review notes. But with so memorable a performance, there was no need to take notes!
After an interval, Bax returned to the stage with a Quaderno by Dallapiccola: an annoying postmodern, atonal affair, which, although lifted to great heights by the excellence of the performer, marked a decided downturn in the enjoyable quality of the night. It may be my imagination, but Bax seemed to show a disappointment as he bowed after this piece, perhaps perceiving that he had engaged Leeds’ audience far less than he might expect to engage audiences elsewhere. We are Yorkshiremen and -women after all, and do not suffer pretentious postmodernism gladly. This was a shame, considering how brilliant the programming was of the first half in knitting together the baroque, late romantic, and early modernist styles.
The concert ended with two long pieces by Liszt which, whilst much better than the Dallapiccola, were still far inferior to the poetic soul of Rachmaninov. Still, the wide-ranging piano writing of Liszt allowed Bax to open a world of colours to the audience on the Howard Assembly Steinway. The pieces showed much of Liszt’s best—melodic, delicate, painterly—but yet I found my attention drifting, despite all the pianistic mastery instilled by Bax in order to lessen its tedium.
Bax was very generous with his audience, and offered two encores. This was very surprising considering that some extremely rude people next to me thought it acceptable to whisper during the first of these encores, which was the exquisite and rare to hear—in Leeds, at any rate (indeed the Bax’s announcement of the piece elicited a loud “ooh!” from some of the audience)—Prelude in Bm for the Left Hand Alone by Scriabin. The second encore was the wonderfully chosen Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) by the great violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler, and arranged for piano by Rachmaninov. I must say that, as a slight violinist myself, I find the unfussy original by Kreisler far superior to the profoundly fussy arrangement by Rachmaninov, but this quibbling would be ungrateful when, again, it was such a rare treat to hear that wonderful piece—in any arrangement—on a Leodiensian stage. And whatever one’s reservations regarding Rachmaninov—and I entered the Howard Assembly Room that night with more than a few—one leaves the evening with a deeper appreciation for the man.
Masterclass on 15th May
The Masterclass of the following morning featured three pianists known as ‘The Lang Lang Foundation Scholars’—pianists ‘of extraordinary ability’ chosen by Lang Lang himself, as the Festival’s co-artistic director (along with Paul Lewis) Adam Gatehouse stated in his charismatic and good-humoured introduction. All three were consummate players, but the real delight of the morning consisted in hearing Bax’s insights into the music they played, which one could not hear without having to marvel at the nuance and sensitivity with which he reads and interprets the musical text, yielding always a deeply thoughtful conception of each piece arrived at by the deductions necessary to the logic of piano-playing, and of score interpretation.
Indeed, so rare were the insights, I think the duty is incumbent on me to report the finest back to Leeds Living’s readers! The first pianist, Chelsea Guo, played Schubert’s heavenly C minor Impromptu with a great musicality. Although overall a little flatter than Bax’s highly dramatic and always engaging playing, Guo excelled in creating something of a religious atmosphere, especially in the piece’s opening.
Then enter Bax, who immediately informs us—in flawless English—that ‘Schubert is always telling a story’: a most appropriate appraisal for the composer of German (and classical) song par excellence. But, Bax says, Schubert’s rhythms can be monotonous: therefore something else in the piece needs to be special instead. He advised Chelsea Guo to observe phrase length and structure: those moments where ‘something happens in the text’. For example, pianissimo does not always mean ‘play softer’: a pianissimo passage may be much ‘heavier’ than the fortissimo passages in the piece.
He remarked that the piece must breathe without stopping the sound — continuity of sound being the greatest challenge on the piano — that the opening melody should be an echo, as if it were sounding before the piece began to be played, that it needs to be free of barlines, that the sound of the hall ought to be exploited in order to sustain the sound, that Guo ought to contemplate the voices (each note) of the chord, and the length of staccato, that, if Schubert has a note repetition—a d next to a d for example—each should be different in character and expression, that the piano’s sound palate must be opened up at times with the pedal, and that a staccato in the bass ought to be imagined as cellos or basses played pizzicato. Another interesting comment was Bax’s photography analogy: that Guo ought to imagine the small-scale phrases ‘in 2 or 1’ (time signature), and thus see them as if at a different length in the focal lens.
Next up was Amir Siraj, who played Liszt’s Funerailles. Just as even the performance of Bax failed to enamour me to Liszt, so failed Siraj. This racket of a piece repeats a thunderous and tedious death knell throughout, with some softer passages. Diraj was truly excellent at playing the story passages, but lacked a certain sweetness in the enjoyable passages. Bax’s advice this time around was an ingenious bit of problem-solving: Liszt’s death-knell can sound tedious in strict time since bells do not actually keep a strict metronomic beat. Instead, he advised Siraj, it would be better to imitate the character of the bell more closely almost by falling into the thunderous bass notes. This immediately replaced what was tedium with intense drama. The rest of the advice consisted of recommending an orchestral imagination in interpreting the piece—which again would add colour, refinement, and interest—and always to exploit an irregular phrase structure in Liszt (and Chopin): if the composer writes something unexpected, jokes Bax, that requires extra ink! We ought definitely, then, as performers, to pay attention (and so allow the listeners to do the same).
The final scholar was Eden Chen, who played three Rachmaninov Preludes, Nos. 6, 4, and 2 (in that order). Chen immediately proved his fine musicianship and enthralled us with a fluid performance as his fingers danced upon, rather than played, the keys. Whereas Amir Siraj excelled in forte, stormy passages, and weakened in the lyrical, soft parts of his piece, Eden Chen was the opposite, playing forte passages more erratically than gracefully. Bax was most complimentary of his performance but offered the subjective objection that it was ‘almost too impressionistic for my taste’, advising him to bring out Rachmaninov’s chromatic complexity in the left-hand parts, and their slowly revealed harmonies. An amusing claim was that pedalling in Rachmaninov is often difficult, and frequently impossible, and that it falls then to pianists to figure out a way to get the piece at least to work. His final remark was a beautiful observation (originally made to him by a conductor) on ‘the perfume in Rachmaninov’, which is to say, the phenomenon whereby Rachmaninov creates a solid, substantial centre, around which gather the dizzying, furious, virtuoso additions. In addition Bax gave the young pianist fascinating technical advice on the art of piano playing, such as the use of the whole weight of the arm in order to get a melody in the inner voices to ‘cut through’ the thick texture of Rachmaninov’s piano writing.
Throughout, and without exception, a fascinating and inspiring masterclass: a rare treat for those few among Leeds’ many piano-lovers to learn about the nuances of the art from one of today’s truly great practitioners. I perhaps even preferred this to the concert of the previous evening, because, for this reviewer, watching and hearing something done brilliantly is only beaten by hearing how it is done! But this is really an impossible choice. Suffice it to say, I left both events with a burning desire to take up piano lessons again! Thank you to Mr Bax for the inspiration, beauty, and intelligence with which he blessed the Howard Assembly stage for those two days, to the Leeds Piano Festival organisers who made it possible, and to the Howard Assembly Room for hosting the events.
Mr Bax plays Wigmore Hall, London this Friday 18th May, and there are several more exciting concerts in the Leeds Piano Festival over the next week.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.