DEBUSSY Préludes, Book 2. La Mer (Melnikov)
Érard pianos from either side of 1900 seem to have survived the ageing process rather well, at least to the point where other pianists before Melnikov (such as Hubert Rutkowski and Jos van Immerseel) have had the idea of recording Debussy on them, and with results that are far more than merely quaint or intriguing. But this is the first time I feel like reaching for normally taboo superlatives: such as ‘revelatory’.
In recent years Melnikov has been showcasing his own collection of pianos from various times and locations, in both concerts and recordings. His Érard dates from around 1885 and was restored in 2014 (take a bow, Markus Fischinger). The range of colour and attack he conjures from it is nothing short of breathtaking, starting with a truly misty ‘Brouillards’, continuing with astonishing veiled sonorities in ‘Feuilles mortes’, then evoking all the dust and glare of summertime Granada in ‘La puerta del vino’, with its ‘brusque oppositions of extreme violence and passionate softness’.
Time and again markings such as ‘spiritual and discreet’, ‘soft and dreamy’ and ‘voluble’ register with uncanny precision, losing any suspicion of whimsy. Put it down to hypersensitive pedalling and touch at the behest of sharp aural imagination and subtle sensibility. In fact it’s not just a question of over-pedalling but at times also of daring reduction; hear the muted sparkling of ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’, for instance, both taken more dryly than you would think possible.
In some climactic moments in La mer the Érard cannot deliver the full brassiness of its modern equivalents. But there are many more passages that are jaw-droppingly beautiful, and I can truly say that the duet version has never so completely made me forget about the orchestra (bravo to Olga Pashchenko here, too).
I don’t want to get into the pluses and minuses of period versus modern instruments, nor into the relative merits of different period instruments. Debussy himself owned a Bechstein (upright) and spoke more favourably about that make than any other. It was actually Ravel who favoured the Érard. Alexei Lubimov uses a 1918 Steinway for Book 2 of the Préludes (and a 1925 Bechstein for Book 1). His chosen instruments have their own special qualities but they sound more like a modern piano with a particular leaning towards string-section sonorities, whereas Melnikov’s Érard tends more towards woodwind evocations, if I can put it that way.
To say that Melnikov matches Lubimov for imaginative flair would be high enough praise. But in point of fact he is in a league above. We’ll be lucky if the Debussy centenary throws up any release as distinguished as this one.