Alessio Bax is not a native Texan (he was born in Italy), but he has been heard so often in this area in recent years that he seems almost to be a homegrown product. On Thursday night, he gave the latest Cliburn at the Kimbell recital and, as usual, was impressive.
He opened his program in the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion with a haunting performance of what is probably Beethoven’s most popular sonata, the Moonlight.
Beethoven never called it that; the sonata got its title after his death. But unlike many another fanciful musical appellation, this one seems to fit the mood of the piece, especially the beautiful opening movement.
Bax found plenty of poetry in the work and capped it with quite a stormy finale. To paraphrase Cliburn President Jacques Marquis, the opening movement of the Moonlight sounds like something anyone could play, but the final movement sounds like something nobody could play.
Next Bax turned to a composer much beloved by contemporary pianists, Alexander Scriabin. Specifically, his Sonata No. 3, Opus 23.
There are some songful passages in this work (one of which was not-so-lyrically accompanied on Thursday night by a cellphone). But there is plenty of drama as well, and Bax created an effective span of musical theater in his interpretation.
The biggest work of the evening came last. This was Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s probably best known in the arrangement for full orchestra by Maurice Ravel, but Mussorgsky’s original version for piano is a strong rival to Ravel’s.
In the work, Mussorgsky paid tribute to an artist friend who had recently died by writing a series of musical pieces inspired by the friend’s art, the whole linked by a series of “promenades.”
Pictures at an Exhibition is a virtuoso piece in its piano form, full of many moods including some spooky passages. Virtuosity and variety were strongly present in Bax’s interpretation, which ended with a grand Great Gate of Kiev.
One admirable trait that Bax exhibited throughout the program was his avoidance of showboating. He simply plays each piece and lets the music, not visual antics, create the drama. That’s quite effective.