On Sunday, award-winning pianist Alessio Bax took on a program of Brahms and Rachmaninoff in the elegant concert room of Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks. Most of the evening featured perilous romantic cliffhangers, staples of keyboard greats of yesteryear. No one could doubt Bax’s virtuosity.
From his opening set of Brahms’s Ballades, Op. 10, the pianist captured a full measure of their storytelling character, inherited from the earlier narrative ballads of romantic poets. Defining the beginning, middle and end of each piece, Bax envisioned the whole as he probed and shaped every phrase through a series of related sections, some playfully jovial, some lyrically mellow.
Bax continued with a blazing attack on five of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, which rivaled the impact of his piano concertos. He missed none of the music’s fury with commanding finger-work, careful pedaling and the tolling resonance of Russian bells. In Brahms’s Paganini Variations, Book 1, intended as bravura studies, Bax easily managed the music’s octave swoops, huge keyboard leaps and unending barrage of fortissimo-pluses, yet this finale was exhausting rather than expressive.
Somehow, Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” and “Liebesfreud,” Rachmaninov’s transcriptions of Kreisler’s solo violin pieces, re-created enchanting Viennese waltzes. This music brought the most effective playing of the night — simply for Bax’s sheer musicality.
Unfortunately, the pianist had to face a Steinway that needed a tuning and a redo of its distracting battered ebony finish.
Porter is a freelance writer.