New Classical Tracks: Bax and collaborators breathe new life into Mozart's music

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
August 7, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Pianist Alessio Bax is deeply passionate about Mozart.

"I don't think there's anything Mozart wrote without stunning imagination. Even today, we recognize "Mozart language" after a couple of bars because we're so used to it, but the more deeply you learn a piece by Mozart, the more you're stunned and surprised by his imaginative genius within the Classical parameters, and the perfection of his craft, as well."

Bax fell in love with the music of Mozart when he was just 8 years old. It happened quite by accident while he was watching a TV miniseries about World War II.

"It was very strange, heavy subject matter for an eight-year-old, but the closing of that show had the development section of Mozart's K467, the beautiful C Major concerto. And every time I heard it, every week, something changed in me physically. So I guess I discovered that music could be moving, not just exhilarating and fun and charming but actually it would stir something in me. That might be the first deep musical experience of my life. It's a piece I still play today, so that feeling has never disappeared."

Bax always thought his first Mozart recording would feature that C Major concerto. He was sidetracked a couple of seasons ago when he was asked to perform two very different Mozart concertos: No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 and the Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595. These two concertos appear on his newest release, along with a set of solo variations from an opera aria by Sarti titled, Come un agnello.

Bax says the larger works on the album show two completely different sides of the composer. He compares them to heaven and earth, "I had the most amazing time working on the two concertos at the same time because of this contrast, and I felt that 491 was kind of pushing me to dramatic extremes, while with 595 I had to find the key to understand it. It's less personally human; he's distilled his style to perfection in tow what becomes almost otherwordly."

The first and second movements of Mozart's Piano concerto No. 27 in B Flat Major are very ethereal. It's that fragility that attracted Bax to this work, "It really doesn't look like much at first, and then the more you study, you think 'My God — it's so deep!' And, you know, it's his last concerto, written right before he died. So I tried to play a little bit with the sound and make it as beautiful as I could."

"The less notes you have, the more important rests become," he explains, "That's why, when you have a piece like 595, they're so important. Also, I think there's an incredible relationship between sound and silence. The first note of any piece isn't really the beginning; you're starting with silence — and you're breaking that silence. It's like negative space in painting or photography; it's just so important!"

The Concerto No. 24 is one of only two Mozart composed in a minor key. Bax says that minor key creates a dramatic effect, "I believe he wanted to be very operatic; it's probably the most operatic of the concerti, and it reminds me of Don Giovanni and its most dramatic scenes, even harmonically. There are parts of the second movement that have the most beautiful conversations the winds and the piano. If you don't know the piece, you assume it's a wind serenade, but then the piano comes in and there are so many beautiful levels to this piece that it really blew me away when I really started working with it."

To play Mozart's Concerto No. 24 in c minor well a strong collaboration is required between the soloist and the orchestra. On this recording, Bax performs with the South Bank Sinfonia, which features young musicians from all over Europe. "I've played Mozart with so many different orchestras — big, small; with a conductor and without a conductor — and playing Mozart with them was an ideal partnership because of the young musicians' curiosity and dedication. In fact, we had a couple of concerts a week leading up to the recording session, and I remember the first rehearsal of 491, after the first couple of phrases of the opening, their conductor Simon Over came over to me and said, 'You have any ideas?' I'm just so not used to this approach working with a symphony orchestra, his approaching me about a passage in which I'm not even playing, and so the whole collaboration developed that way."

"Mozart's music doesn't play itself; you see it looks perfect on the page, but you have to make it come alive somehow," Bax explains. With their combined talents, imaginations and deep collaborative commitment, Alessio Bax, Simon Over and the Southbank Sinfonia pry out some fresh ideas — and new life — in these familiar works by Mozart.

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