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Alessio Bax tackles Beethoven’s most challenging sonata

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Pianist Alessio Bax plays a solo recital this weekend at Music@Menlo in Atherton.

Piano virtuoso Alessio Bax agrees with Beethoven about the demands of the composer’s “Hammerklavier” sonata.

“It’s absolutely the most difficult of his 32 sonatas to perform. There is a feeling that you can never reach the emotional and intellectual heights, and I don’t think any one pianist can feel at home with all the vast challenges of this piece,” says the Italian musician, who will play it in a Music@Menlo solo recital Sunday in Atherton. The program also includes Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

For pianists, the significance of the German word “hammerklavier” goes beyond “pianoforte.” In 1818, when he finished the work, Beethoven proudly wrote to his publisher, “Now you have a sonata that will keep the pianists busy when it is played 50 years hence!”

Yet Bax, 36, winner of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, who learned Beethoven’s Sonata in B-flat Major for Piano, op. 106, as a 15-year-old prodigy, says, “I know it’s a bit corny, but it’s a humbling experience still, to sit in front of the ‘Hammerklavier’ in the morning. I start with the slow movement, and I think to myself, ‘Am I lucky or what?’”

Written in the last decade of Beethoven’s life, the piece was completed while he worked on the Ninth Symphony, and just before he began the “Missa Solemnis.” David Dubal, piano professor at The Juilliard School, says, “The slow movement of Op. 106 is the longest and most sublime in the history of instrumental art.”

Joys in Bax’s life are plentiful. He feels lucky to be able to tour, to travel, to discover new places and to try new and different foods.

Married to pianist Lucille Chung, Bax describes their musical relationship: “In many ways, we work as each other’s worst critics — in a good way. Imagine having an extra pair of ears you can trust. In the summer, we travel together, playing various music festivals and it’s just incredibly fun.

The couple, who live in New York, have a new baby girl, born Monday. Asked if there’s any chance the child might escape the rigors of piano lessons, he says, “If our daughter turns out to be more talented than us, with different interests, then I’m happy with that. I mean, I only do this because it’s the only thing I can do!”


Alessio Bax

Presented by Music@Menlo

Where: Center for Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20 to $50

Contact: (650) 331-0202, musicatmenlo.org

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