Alessio Bax plays Scriabin and Mussorgsky. (Signum Classics)
Scriabin, Mussorgsky
Alessio Bax

Signum Classics

I first encountered Alessio Bax a few years ago, when he accompanied a cellist at the Kennedy Center. He so upstaged his partner (with no overplaying) that he became the story. This Italian artist, now in his late 30s, studied in France and here in the United States and has a varied career that includes a lot of collaborative playing with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and the Emerson Quartet, among others.

His musical sensitivity is fully on display in this album of Russian classics, though not always with the thundering power we hear from others. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” is fastidious and somewhat contained.

The fingerwork in “Tuileries,” “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells” and “Limoges” is clean but lacks the last bit of virtuosity one hears in Mikhail Pletnev’s dazzling version.

The slower character pieces like “The Old Castle,” “Bydlo” and “Samuel Goldberg and Schmuÿle” have some imaginative touches, but the classic Richter recording is not threatened.

I was more impressed with the Scriabin numbers; the Sonata in F-sharp Minor surges forward from the first bar, and the andante is really beautifully voiced. I still have trouble believing that the deeply felt C-sharp Minor Etude was written by a 14-year-old, but there it is, and Bax treats it as the miniature masterpiece it is.

The disc ends with Mussorgsky’s “Night on the Bare Mountain” in an arrangement by Konstantin Chernov, further adapted by Bax. I can’t muster much enthusiasm for it; piano reductions of orchestra music, even with added filigree, rarely hold interest after one or two hearings. Though Bax’s technique is masterly, the effort to cover so many parts leads inevitably to some approximate rhythms, and one always misses the riotous colors of the original.

Robert Battey

Battey is a freelance writer.

Herculanum
Félicien David

Hervé Niquet, cond. Ediciones Singulares.

Félicien David, “Herculanum.” Véronique Gens, Karine Deshayes, Brussels Philharmonic, Flemish Radio Choir, Hervé Niquet, cond. (Ediciones Singulares)

Félicien David (1810-1876) was a celebrated composer in the 19th century, but after his death his music was almost immediately forgotten. Since 2010, the Venice-based Centre de Musique Romantique Française has been sponsoring performances of David’s music, including this live recording of his opera “Herculanum,” captured during performances last year at the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels. Premiered in 1859, it would remain David’s only opera produced by the Opéra de Paris, after which he turned to works for the Opéra-Comique, like the charming and much lighter “Lalla Roukh,” recorded last year by Washington’s own Opera Lafayette.

The opera is set in the Roman town of Herculaneum. It is the summer of 79, and the Romans have no idea that Mount Vesuvius is about to send deadly pyroclastic flows their way. Olympia and her brother Nicanor, a Roman proconsul, are dealing with this pesky sectarian cult following some Jewish prophet murdered in Jerusalem. They seduce two of its members, Hélios and Lilia, with varying degrees of success, but the doom-and-gloom prophecies of a Christian prophet come true. The opera’s explosive conclusion was an even more dramatic evocation of the power of Vesuvius than that at the end of Daniel Auber’s grand opera “La Muette de Portici.”

The cast is headed by Karine Deshayes, a French mezzo-soprano who gave a recital in Washington last February and who is electric in the role’s coloratura escapades, such as the repeated phrases of the brindisi “Bois ce vin, que l’amour donne.”

The soprano Véronique Gens is earnest as the Christian maiden Lilia, eager to meet a martyr’s death, while her beloved Hélios, sung by the strong if slightly sloppily phrased tenor Edgaras Montvidas, yields willingly in a lovely “Air de l’extase.”

The bass Nicolas Courjal is appropriately blustery as Nicanor, who, in a moment worthy of Dante, is struck dead by lightning during his attempted seduction of Lilia, only to be replaced by Satan himself. Bass-baritone Julien Véronèse has a pleasing gravity as the thundering prophet Magnus.

At just over two hours, the work heard in this recording seems too short for a grand opera and indeed cuts have been made, including Olympia’s virtuosic “Hymne à Vénus” and lots of dance music in the Act III divertissement.

Hervé Niquet, known as a baroque specialist with his ensemble Le Concert Spirituel, leads the Brussels Philharmonic in a stirring performance, and the Flemish Radio Choir is in fine form in the many excellent choral passages.

This limited release includes a lavishly produced book with several excellent essays and a review of the opera’s premiere by none other than Hector Berlioz.

Charles Downey

Downey is a freelance writer.