mon 04/07/2022

Alexander Melnikov, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Alexander Melnikov, Wigmore Hall

Alexander Melnikov, Wigmore Hall

State-of-the-art pianism from a young Russian in Schubert and Shostakovich

How important is it to hear “the composer’s intentions” at a concert? Maybe only the interpreter’s intentions are possible. The young Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov challenges the golden rule of faithfulness to source with the resources of today’s piano - not the ropey old Soviet thing Shostakovich would have had, or the limited piano Schubert would have known, and last night at the Wigmore Hall delivered an ear-opener of a recital all about modern pianism at its most fascinating and provocative.

Melnikov’s award-winning recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues was the peg on which to hang a programme of the first 12 preludes and fugues, preceded by Brahms's Op 116 pieces, and as an opener Schubert’s titanically flamboyant Wanderer Fantasy. None of these pieces did Melnikov offer as if from the composer’s mouth - each one came boldly from his 21st-century powers, and with pianism as protean as his (by which I mean not only his speed and ease about the court, but the depth of colour and texturising that he is intent upon) you can only marvel... and maybe disagree.

He treated the Schubert like one of Beethoven’s most epic sonatas, an attacking, vigorous steeplechase of huge sounds and scintillating arpeggios as monumental as the Waldstein, yet with a distinct playfulness and charm. This was a composer whom one of his mentors, Sviatoslav Richter, adored, but Melnikov’s a scientific kind of epicure, I’d say, who calculates his effects tremendously well, and may at the moment be still not ready at 38 to swap his pure pleasure in mastering today's pianos for the risky elementalism of Richter. I’m sure he’s right to go so passionately with his inclination, only it’s the pianist you’re listening to, not the composer.

And the piano. One of the factors that dominated my appreciation of last night’s concert was my awareness of the gorgeous quality of the piano he was playing. Congratulations to the Wigmore Hall’s piano technician. Whoever handled the rich-toned Steinway for Melnikov had produced some pinpoint-perfect tenth tuning, some superlatively sonorous bass notes, and a deliciously treacly middle register that the Russian’s assertive thumbs probed and probed, digging out great caramel melodies and inner harmonies. I also admired the featherlight pedalling effects - this is state-of-the-art pianism on an instrument of marvellous mechanical sensitivity.

I recall that Richter was generally entirely unbothered what piano he played, giving any instrument, however crap, a few minutes’ brief handshake only before producing his miracles. Melnikov is not that kind of player, but what he makes happen with a top-class instrument is Titianesque in colour and grandeur. This isn’t a pianist who espouses the period school: he’s a pure 21st-century Romantic, his Schubert pushing rubato to the limit, full of sentiment, phrases that swelled mightily to great climaxes only to subside subito to almost imperceptible ppp - this is dazzling and captivating playing, if just a wee bit overcalculated.

In the Brahms Op 116 - a pot of seven Fantasies, Intermezzos and Capriccios (the names redole of suddenness, whim, happening on the moment) - the calculation was even more evident. Such pianism makes you smile in exultancy that it exists, but it also felt overcoloured, great dabs of pigment and dynamics, the bones and top lines lost in busy, tasty timbres. It’s undoubtedly thought-provoking playing, but it didn’t feel to me like Brahms (as, say, Perahia’s the other week’s did). It’s almost Tchaikovsky in places, even Lisztian - for me it missed Brahms’s boldness in striding out over empty air, hoping his whistling will carry him through his syncopations. That last Capriccio, which to me seems all snatches and off-rhythm hopefulness, concluded the set so smoothly that it didn’t finish in relief so much as triumph in inevitability. It’s a big difference, and for me an interesting failure.

And yet all of this pillar-to-post variance made sense after the interval, in the Shostakovich. Born in 1973 in Moscow, Melnikov was only two when Shostakovich died in that same city, but like many younger Russians, he treats Dmitri Dmitriyevich as the beginning of Modernism. The first half of the concert, the Schubert and Brahms, felt like the laying out and testing of the weapons that would be needed in the Shostakovich, and which would rise up mightily in their own artistic integrity.

Hear Dmitri Shostakovich play his own opening prelude of the set

The wistful, light, almost Schubertian timbre of the opening prelude as Melnikov played it was something vividly of today, a new, living recreation for today’s ears of a 60-year-old text that is fuller of instrumental possibilities than it used to be. He doesn’t go backwards to research and re-identify - he takes the Glenn Gould approach, he ignores time and biography, he studies this text without prejudice, and interprets it in uninhibited pianistic terms and what appears as a deep identification with its Russianness.

I don’t doubt his integrity for a second, I surrendered to the beauty, emotional power and exultant, ear-bashing loudness of last night's playing, the melting and magical landscape of near-Bach and thanks-Bach and not-at-all-Bach of Shostakovich’s landmark cycle - while I still feel that I need an earlier recording to counterbalance Melnikov’s, to remind me of the 1950 composition’s bleak, hostile environment. Melnikov is not a bleak pianist, he’s a chap who looks forwards, who revels in the luxuries that a modern music world can offer - bleakness may come to him in time, and meanwhile I’m going to revel in his many-coloured Harmonia Mundi recording.

The encore, Scriabin's early Poème Op 32, No 1, came out opulently egged with those smeary harmonies that sensual pianists delight in, schmaltzy in Melnikov’s hands, a very sweet Russian chocolate. He’s a stimulating musician - not yet one to bed one’s soul down with, but one to reckon with.

Listen to Heinrich Neuhaus, Richter's teacher, playing Scriabin's Op 32 Poème


It's also perhaps worth remembering that Melnikov has tackled Brahms (superbly) on a Boesendorfer of 1875. How I would love to have heard this. I do actually think he beds his soul down with Rachmaninov, at any rate, in the Etudes Tableaux and songs.

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