Bax Plays Brahms

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  • Program Notes
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April 30, 2022, 7:30 pm – Memorial Auditorium

 

The WFSO once again will welcome the brilliant Italian pianist, Alessio Bax, for a powerful ending to the 74th concert season.  Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” will delight with its intense harmonic colors and flowing beauty.  The climax of the evening will be experienced as Alessio Bax brings his musical sensitivity and smooth touch to the intensely romantic Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.  Don’t miss this memorable season finale! 

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Little Russian”

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in d, Op 15

Guest Artist: Alessio Bax

 

 

Alessio Bax, piano

Combining exceptional lyricism and insight with consummate technique, Alessio Bax is without a doubt “among the most remarkable young pianists now before the public” (Gramophone). He catapulted to prominence with First Prize wins at both the Leeds and Hamamatsu International Piano Competitions, and is now a familiar face on five continents, not only as a recitalist and chamber musician, but also as a concerto soloist who has appeared with more than 150 orchestras, including the London, Royal, and St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestras, the Boston, Dallas, Cincinnati, Sydney, and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras, and the NHK Symphony in Japan, collaborating with such eminent conductors as Marin Alsop, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Simon Rattle, Yuri Temirkanov, and Jaap van Zweden.

Bax constantly explores many facets of his career. He released his eleventh Signum Classics album, Italian Inspirations, whose program was also the vehicle for his solo recital debut at New York’s 92nd Street Y as well as on tour. Bax and his regular piano duo partner, Lucille Chung, gave recitals at New York’s Lincoln Center and were featured with the St. Louis Symphony and Stéphane Denève. He has also presented the complete works of Beethoven for cello and piano with cellist Paul Watkins in New York City. This summer is highlighted by his fifth season as Artistic Director of Tuscany’s Incontri in Terra di Siena festival as well as return appearances at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival and at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival with the Dallas Symphony and Fabio Luisi conducting.

Bax revisited Mozart’s K. 491 and K. 595 concertos, as heard on Alessio Bax Plays Mozart, for his recent debuts with the Boston and Melbourne Symphonies, both with Sir Andrew Davis, and with the Sydney Symphony, which he led himself from the keyboard. Recent seasons also saw Bax make his solo recital debut at London’s Wigmore Hall, which aired live on BBC Radio 3, and give concerts at L.A.’s Disney Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center, and New York’s Carnegie Hall. 

At age 14, Bax graduated with top honors from the conservatory of Bari, his hometown in Italy, and after further studies in Europe, he moved to the United States in 1994. A Steinway artist, he lives in New York City with pianist Lucille Chung and their daughter, Mila. He was invited to join the piano faculty of Boston’s New England Conservatory in the fall of 2019.

Program Notes

“Bax Plays Brahms”

April 29, 2022

Todd Giles

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto #1 in D, Op. 15 (1858)

By the time Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his first piano concerto, Romanticism and Classical forms had nearly run their course. Just around the corner lay the impressionism of Claude Debussy, the rhythmic drive of Igor Stravinsky, and the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg. Although Brahms turned a frequent backwards glance to the Classical and Romantic traditions of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann more often than pushing the artistic envelope, his music did have a subtle impact on what was to come. Unfortunately, though, not to the extent that Robert Schumann had hoped for when writing publically, shortly after meeting the 20 year old compositional upstart at his home in Düsseldorf for the first time in 1853, that Brahms “vouchsafed to give the highest and most ideal expression to the tendencies of the times.” That’s a heavy weight for any young artist to bear.

Add to that the awful sting of being hissed at rather than applauded following the first two performances of the Piano Concerto #1 in D, and it certainly would be “rather too much,” as he wrote to Joseph Joachim about his first major orchestral work in which he himself admits he was “only experimenting and feeling [his] way.” It didn’t help that the concerto was infused to its compositional core with the pain of losing his new mentor to a suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization in 1853—followed by his untimely death in 1857—while at the same time falling in love with said mentor’s wife, composer and musician Clara Schumann.

The concerto form, born of the Late Baroque period (1680-1750), is a work for one or more solo instruments and orchestra. In the hands of Mozart, the form reached an apotheosis of lyrical beauty based on back-and-forth dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Beethoven, while building on what Mozart, Haydn and other Classical composers created before him, expanded the form’s scale and pushed the dialogue between solo instrument and orchestra in new, more complex directions, inviting the soloist to jointly shape the material into a vast, more balanced dialogic structure. Brahms followed in Beethoven’s footsteps with his own concertos, making the soloist a nearly constant participant in symphonic dialogue, while still holding the spotlighted role.

The inspiration for Brahms’ first piano concerto was indeed tragic. Within a week after Schumann’s attempted suicide, Brahms began drafting what would eventually become, nearly five painful and guilt-ridden years later, his Piano Concerto #1. It was a long road to concertohood, however. The work started out its life as a sonata for two pianos, after which it was transformed into a four-movement symphony, becoming, finally, a three-movement concerto for the composer’s favorite instrument. Brahms held onto material from the original work’s first movement, composing the other two movements from scratch. After all, a lot happened between the work’s inception in 1853 and completion in 1858.

The first movement, marked “Maestoso,” follows the standard first-movement concerto form of exposition, development, recapitulation and coda; it is also one of the longest concerto movements in the repertoire, not to mention one of the most physically and mentally demanding on the pianist. The work opens with the agitated, swirling sounds of the strings and rumble of the tympani, surely inspired by Brahms’ memory of his new friend leaping to his hoped-for demise into the Rhine. Aside from the stormy emotional gestures that open the work, much of the first movement is, as the “Maestoso” designation indicates, majestic and dignified. While the opening surely captures the young composer’s emotional turmoil, we can also hear a young man early beset by not only tragedy, but also the understanding that he can’t bring his friend back, nor, apparently, stop loving his widow.

The latter can be heard in the slow second movement that, as Brahms wrote to Clara in 1857, is a “tender portrait” of her. Upon hearing the Adagio, Clara responded that “the whole piece has something churchly about it; it could be an Eleison.” Indeed, unbeknownst to her, Brahms, who had been studying Renaissance choral music, had earlier inscribed the words “Blessed, who comes in the name of the Lord” in Latin atop this sketch for this quietly impassioned middle movement whose lovely theme we hear introduced by the bassoons as it opens with serene string accompaniment. Three years earlier, Brahms had written to Clara saying, “I think of you as going to the concert hall like a high priestess to the altar.” No doubt this movement embodies the same feelings of love and admiration. 

The final movement, which is the shortest of the three, is a Rondo marked “Allegro no troppo” (“fast, but not overly so”). Choosing the traditional rhythmically dynamic movement to close his first concerto, Brahms borrowed from the structure of the finale of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which was composed nearly sixty years earlier. As the finale emerges lighter and more vivacious than the hectic turmoil of the opening movement, we sense that however much the composer’s feelings for Clara have developed over time, he has, over the work’s five-year compositional period, also come to terms with the loss of what was sure to likewise become a deep and lasting friendship with her husband had it had time to more fully develop. Although composed in his youth, the Piano Concerto No. 1 is a bold and impassioned mature work that, as Schuman had written in his journal upon meeting Brahms, was composed by “a genius,” the true heir to Beethoven.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.2 in C minor (“Little Russian”), Op. 17 (1872; rev. 1879-80) 

Ask anyone on the street who comes to mind when you say “classical music” and you’re sure to hear Tchaikovsky’s name at the top of the list, even if that list is only three composers deep. If we are using the word “classical” in its broadest sense, than yes, Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is indeed a composer of classical music, strings, woodwinds, brass and all. But if we are speaking historically, Tchaikovsky epitomizes everything held dear by the Romantic Era of which he played a major role. Another minor misconception is that he was a member of “The Mighty Handful,” a group of Russo-centric composers who eschewed the Western musical tradition, which included among its better-known members Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. What sets their Russian counterpart apart from “The Five,” as the group was alternately known, is their embrace of “orientalism,” or the adoption of Eastern themes and harmonies.

What sets them apart simultaneously links them together, interestingly, to the extent that Tchaikovsky likewise incorporated Russian peasant songs and themes into his compositions, though all the while with an ear back to the Western classicism of his favorite composer, Mozart. As such, it is mainly Tchaikovsky’s lyricism and glowing orchestral color that draws listeners to his symphonies, ballets, operas and concerti. Many critics of Tchaikovsky found his compositions at times too lyrical, passionate and emotional—some to the level of being banal—and though Tchaikovsky certainly does wear his heart on his sleeve, it seems that his attraction to Mozart kept him reigned in somewhat. When it comes to his symphonies, it is the last three he is known for. They are more brooding, moody, and tend to minor keys, whereas his first three are much lighter, which is perhaps why they do not get performed quite as often as the later ones.

Tchaikovsky wrote his Second Symphony while visiting the Ukrainian country estate of his sister in the summer of 1872—the first version, that it; it was revised five years later. Its subtitle, the “Little Russian,” refers to the fact that Tchaikovsky incorporated Ukrainian folk tunes into each of its four movements, which was more than any of his other orchestral compositions. It is the revised version, with its reworked opening movement and shortened finale that is most often heard today. The “Little Russian” opens with a horn playing the melody from the Russian folksong “Down Little Mother Volga” in its more melancholy Ukrainian iteration. The second movement is a march whose main theme was lifted from his own unpublished opera, Undine (1869). The third, an energetic and playful scherzo in ABA form. The finale opens with a grand brass introduction not dissimilar to the opening of the famous “Promenade” of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which was composed two years later. Following the opening, the theme emerges bit by bit after several restarts, taking wing as the Ukrainian folk tune “Let the Crane Soar.”