Alexander Melnikov : Four Pieces, Four Pianos
Alexander Melnikov’s new release of Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky is eloquent testimony to the insights possible through the use of technologies the composers knew and exploited so brilliantly. Nowadays, pianists expecting to be taken seriously as interpreters of music from the 18th through early 20th-centuries are at a distinct disadvantage without at least a nodding acquaintance with historical instruments. Among those whose familiarity with early pianos informs their performances on modern ones, few share Melnikov’s keen discernment of the instruments’ evolving capacities, and fewer still his executive mastery. Here he plays Schubert’s 1823 Wanderer-Fantasie on a piano from c1828 35 by the Viennese maker Alois Graff, not to be confused with the more famous Conrad Graf. Chopin’s Op 10 Études, composed between 1829 and 1832, are played on an 1837 Paris Érard. For Liszt’s Don Juan, published in 1843 and revised in 1877, Melnikov plays an 1875 Bösendorfer, and for Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a 2014 Steinway.
This is a fully realised, robust Wanderer-Fantasie that sings, dances, proclaims and cajoles in a veritable eruption of joy. Most striking are the tempos which, from all evidence in both Schubert’s score and Liszt’s concerto transcription, seem apt and inevitable. The quick movements, fleet as gazelles, lithe and pliant without being driven, surround and support a chill Adagio alla breve, all the more desolate for its context.
Melnikov’s Chopin Études are distinctively characterised, with every interpretative choice scrupulously rooted in the text and refreshingly devoid of self-conscious exhibitionism. The industrious intricacy of the A minor (No 2) hovers ambivalently between the comic and the creepy, while the C sharp minor (No 4) all but explodes in frustrated rage. Between them, the lovely E major (No 3) unfolds with the naturalness of sweet conversation. The F major (No 7) and F minor (No 8) Études take unfettered wing in a way that recalls the young Backhaus. In the sweep and grandeur of the C minor (No 12), victory of the revolution is a foregone conclusion.
True to its title, Réminiscences de Don Juan emerges as though recalled from a dream. Melnikov treats Liszt’s elaborately florid cadenzas as the connective tissue out of which various scenes come into sharp focus. Bösendorfers retained a vestigial differentiation of registers as late as the 1870s. This quality is front and centre in the ‘Là ci darem la mano’ variations, where Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina is given almost palpably human dimension. Vivid character portrayal is also at the heart of this sparkling Petrushka. I don’t know of an orchestral performance of the ballet that evokes the title character with greater sympathy and pathos than Melnikov achieves in ‘Chez Petrouchka’. Nor can I think of recorded performances of either Liszt’s or Stravinsky’s benchmark creations more compelling than these.
Melnikov’s prevalent richness of detail, unforced but precise rhetoric and exquisite sense of colour are skilfully captured by the engineers. His interpretations warrant the attention of professionals, even as they promise enduring pleasure for lovers of the best piano-playing.