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Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung Play Together

Alessio BaxI should have liked to hear the Suspicious Cheese Lords, Washington’s gem of an a capella group, at the National Gallery of Art – the only Christmas concert this season I would have gladly attended. But I know the Cheese Lords perhaps a little too well to review them; aside, their concert was well covered by Charles. Meanwhile, skipping that concert gave me the opportunity to hear Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung at the Phillips Collection in a concert for one piano and four hands. And how glad I am to have heard them, too.

Bax/Chung opened with one of my favorites among Schubert’s piano pieces (regardless of how many hands are involved), the Fantasia in F Minor, D940. It is a work of such beauty and sophistication that it really ought to be considered on par with the late Schubert piano sonatas for half the amount of fingers. This is no mere Hausmusik. The infectious opening theme and its modulations would move a stone and stick in your head for long after listening to them.

Before I knew the actual program, this recital got my attention because of Alessio Bax’s name. The 2000 Leeds International Piano Competition winner came out with a CD titled Baroque Reflections that either got good reviews at the time or stuck with me because of my possible confusion with the great English, faux-Irish symphonist by the same name. Having read about Ms. Chung’s Györgi Ligeti piano music recordings on Dynamic. I will now keep an ear out for her as well.

Lucille ChungThe Schubert performance was not so felt, heavenly soft, and musical as in a recent Maria João Pires / Ricardo Castro recording (an excellent two-disc set with the silliest liner notes, ever, reviewed on Ionarts in March), and the Largo and Allegro vivace were a bit rough hewn. Who cares, though, when you get a tender reading of the concluding Con delicatezza with its quasi-fugal thrust.

Mother Goose followed – and after the recent orchestral version with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra it was just as charming to hear the original. The five short pieces, written to be suitable for children and indeed premiered by two kids, wonderfully capture the unmistakably French charm of their fairytale settings. In parts like the Conversations of the Beauty and the Beast the sounds of Erik Satie and Federico Mompou are not far away. There, and in the concluding Fairy Garden, was all that tenderness that might have been borrowed from the Schubert performance. But even if the Mother Goose Suite is a much simpler work than the Fantasia, I can’t say that the gentleness was wrongly invested in the Ravel. There really was something magical and innocent in the musical material of that maternal piece of poultry.

Petrushka, Stravinksy’s “Burlesque in four scenes,” is a hoot in whichever version, whether orchestral, single (and daring) pianist, or piano, four hands. From the tangle of its many irreverent, dancing, hopping, and thundering musical lines emerged the great joy of exuberance that Stravinsky put into the score and that Ms. Chung and Mr. Bax extracted again. Watching those four hands whiz around the keyboard to caress and boisterously pound the Phillips’s Steinway D was pleasure in addition to music that, when so well presented, cannot be resisted. Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1 as an encore didn’t hurt the good mood, either.