The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here are three notable new solo piano releases from Madison-connected pianists — Emanuel Ax, Alessio Bax and Jonathan Biss.

March 28, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A New York Times critic recently asked about veteran pianist Emanuel Ax (below): Does this guy ever have an off night? And the answer was no.

Emanuel Ax playing LA Times

Ax, a longtime favorite to Madison audiences ever since he first played here in 1975, is indeed one of the most reliable, consistent and reputable pianists on the circuit these days.

He has technique to spare but he is not known for, or given to, pyrotechnics. No one raves about his octave technique, his huge sound, his fast scales.

But he is known for a certain distinctive and appealing tone and a light touch. More importantly, he is known for always doing justice to the music, not himself, and for favoring naturalness over edginess.

You can hear all this and more – Ax at his best — in his new release for Sony Classical. It is based on the program of theme-and-variations he is now touring with. The CD features Haydn’s “Variations in F Minor,” Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes,” in that order. If you get the digital download from iTunes, you can also get Aaron Copland’s Variations that just didn’t fit on the CD but are part of the original program.

All the performance are noteworthy and convincing. But I am especially fond of the Haydn work, which was written, legend has it, at the death of a student who was also the composer’s lover. Ax brings both Classical-era poise and clarity touched with a proto-Romantic sensibility of anguish to this work that is not heard or performed often enough.

The Beethoven variations go back to his early career and he does full justice to it with added subtlety the decades have brought. And the Schumann, which includes some of the posthumous etude variations, are also thoroughly enjoyable.

I have listened to this recording several times and always find new things to appreciate. Here’s hoping he returns soon to Madison, a city The Ear knows that Ax really likes (he has performed several times with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and given several recitals at the Wisconsin Union Theater) and a city that helped give him his start.

Emanuel Ax Variations CD

Jonathan Biss (below) is more than a generation younger than Ax, but he is developing a reputation much like Ax’s. Biss, who performed Mozart concerto sublimely with the Madison Symphony Orchestra several season ago, likes to offer distinctive programs (lately he is combining Schuman and Janacek by interspersing them) and is known more for musicianship than showmanship. But he often shows more edginess, especially with faster tempi. Not for nothing does Biss so identify with the music of Schumann, one of his specialties.

Biss

His second volume of the complete Beethoven Sonatas for Onyx – to be completed over 10 years – often some surprises as well as some predictable qualities.

Yes, it contains the overplayed “Moonlight” Sonata, which, as the recently deceased pianist-musicologist Charles Rosen once remarked, is probably the best-known piece of art music ever written. But Biss turns in a fine, outstanding performance, and then some — although I personally miss the mesmerizing slowness of Vladimir Horowitz’ opening movement, even if Beethoven indicated he wanted it played faster.

But the real interest on this new CD is elsewhere. Start with the early but very big Op. 7 Sonata – another piece that is not played often enough, but which boasts many wonderful moments throughout but especially in the slow movement. Biss is superb in it and makes we want to play it as well as listen to it more. That is high praise, perhaps the highest praise.

Then add in such rarities as the later and relatively short Op. 78 sonata, one Beethoven was said to favor over the “Moonlight” plus the rarely heard G Minor Fantasy, which Biss recorded before for EMI and which is a quirky piece that some think belongs with the Op. 78 sonata.

I like that Biss follows his habit of mixing up the sonatas by drawing from different periods, and it continues to work well. And if you are going to listen to the “Moonlight,” you can’t do better than his version within this context. All that, plus Onyx’s sound is a clear and close-up without being harsh – just superb as ever as a model for other labels.

I just hope Biss returns soon to Madison for a solo recital or a chamber music program, or even, yes, another concerto.

Jonathan BIss Beethoven CD vol. 2

The young and camera-friendly Alessio Bax (below) won the prestigious Leeds Competition and several others. He has played both a solo recital and a duo program with his pianist wife Lucille Chung in Madison at Farley’s House of Pianos. He has developed quite the reputation with high praise heaped particularly on his technique as well as some unusual repertoire, including his recording of Bach transcriptions.

Alessio Bax 1

When you hear his new CD of Brahms for Signum Classics, you will understand why. For beautiful music, there are the Op. 10 Ballades and the eight Op. 76 pieces and intermezzi. But for sheer breath-taking virtuosity it is hard to beat the “Paganini” Variations, which he performs to perfection, bringing the music rather than his technical prowess to the fore. An added piece of razzle-dazzle is Gyorgy Cziffra’s arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 (see and hear it performed live by Bax in a YouTube video at the bottom).

But Bax also possess great tone, and a wonderful sense of line and lyrical pacing that allow the thickly scored Brahms miniatures to breathe and make sense. He should definitely return soon to Mad City.

I myself like more mixed recital programs like Ax’s, ones built around a central theme or a connection that puts pieces and composers into dialogue with and among each other. And I think that labels are turning more and more to such programs as many buyers and listeners already own compete cycles of certain works by certain composers.

All in all, these new releases bodes well for a new generation of pianists who impress us with their musicianship as well as their technique, but who are still not well enough known to the public. And The Ear says it again: May Emanuel Ax, Jonathan Biss and Alessio Bax all return soon to Madison for recitals, concertos or even chamber music.

Alessio Bax Brahms CD


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