Alessio Bax

The Italian pianist on recording some of Beethoven's best known works

Alessio Bax
Published: September 2, 2014 at 1:42 pm

What challenges and opportunities does recording some of Beethoven’s most well known and well loved piano works, the 'Moonlight' and 'Hammerklavier' Sonatas, present?


I love the fact that you mention opportunities as well as challenges. When approaching a well known piece like the 'Moonlight' Sonata I always try to go back to the source – the score itself – and apply all my knowledge about the composer and what I have learned about the piano over the years in order to present a fresh reading. I don’t necessarily want to offer a different interpretation for the sake of being different, but very often when I approach an old war horse with fresh ears and an objective eye, what the score tells me is something quite different from what somebody might be expecting. Of course there is no way to avoid tradition and tradition mixed with a musician's own individuality is what really fascinates me. The challenge is to approach this music as if it were written yesterday, but keeping all traditions in mind.

Your disc will also include transcriptions of Beethoven’s 'Turkish March' (listen above) and the 'Chorus of Whirling Dervishes' from The Ruins of Athens. What are your main considerations when transcribing large works for piano?

My last few recordings have included my own transcriptions of a few favorite works of mine. In my transcriptions I try to recreate the colors and sounds of the original works, and I only decide to transcribe a piece when I am not satisfied with what has already been done by other transcribers. Very often transcriptions are paraphrases in which the original work is only used as a starting point for something very different, and that can work wonderfully well too. My Bach Transcribed album, which includes transcriptions by Busoni, Godowski, Saint-Saëns and others, is full of such examples. My own transcriptions on this new disc serve a very different purpose. They are a vehicle for me to play works that I love and that are not originally meant for piano.

How do you achieve the same depth and colour as an orchestra or chorus?

The piano is the most versatile and wonderful of instruments. At the end of the day, though, it is merely a very complex piece of machinery. As a pianist, one needs to develop a big repertoire of 'tricks' that will make it sound like other instruments – or the human voice – in order to create the illusion of a real legato (which is something that the piano, a percussive instrument, is physically unable to do) or to create the illusion of a crescendo on a note once it’s been already struck. Those are just few examples. There are many factors involved in this process. Voicing is one of the most important ones, but also timing, pedaling, and of course, sound production. It all starts in the imagination of the pianist, but then one needs to develop the tools to consciously make it all happen at the right time.

Is there any music you wouldn’t consider transcribing for the piano?

Of course I wouldn’t transcribe music that I don’t absolutely love. As I said, my main motivation for transcribing has been recreating the sound world of the original work on the piano. Somehow when I hear a work that moves me I have to say to myself, 'I think I could do that on the piano and make it convincing.' If I don’t feel that, then I wouldn’t consider transcribing it. Today, I can safely say I would not be interested in transcribing the major symphonic literature, as I wouldn’t find a compelling reason to do so. But my motto is: 'never say never'!

You are accompanying Joshua Bell in a recital of works by Schubert, Grieg and Prokofiev at the Wigmore Hall in November. When did you first work with Joshua Bell and what is he like to work with?

We first met and played together in 2006 at the Verbier Festival in a quartet with Steven Isserlis and Nobuko Imai and have been good friends since. Last year we had a wonderful tour of South America playing four major sonatas in 10 concerts and this year we have a tour of North America and two European tours. He is an incredibly inspiring person and musician and a very generous colleague. Needless to say, I am loving performing with him in some of the most amazing venues in the world but the most precious moments for me happen during rehearsals, when we discuss different ideas and always look at the score with open hearts and fresh ears.

How does working as an accompanist compare to performing as a soloist?

To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t call playing with Joshua Bell accompanying. I honestly don’t see any difference between my work as a soloist and playing with Josh. Music is music; with him I have a constant source of inspiration which is a real luxury and which I try to bring to all aspects of my music making. We play really wonderful violin/piano duo repertoire and it is some of the most intense and rewarding music making that I have been lucky to be part of. It is a constant back and forth of energy, beauty and inspiration.

More like this

Alessio Bax Plays Beethoven is out on Signum Classics on 15 September 2014. Visit: Listen to Beethoven's 'Turkish March' (arr. Alessio Bax) above


Artist interview: Jeffrey Siegel


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