Alexander Melnikov’s Thought-Provoking Approach to Debussy

06/04/2017

Debussy: Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 5.4.2017. (AS)

Debussy Préludes, Books 1 and 2

Alexander Melnikov is well-known for his solo performances of Austro-German and Russian repertoire, also for his work with original instrument ensembles involving the use of historical instruments, and for his partnership with the violinist Isobel Faust. But in the music of Debussy he will have been an unknown quantity to many in the audience at the Wigmore Hall. We hear the composer’s piano music in performance quite frequently, but a whole evening devoted to the two books of Préludes is a rarity indeed: a BBC producer muttered to me before the performance that he didn’t know whether it was a really a good idea, implying no doubt that a whole evening of such singular music might be misguided.

The experience turned out to be miles away from the traditional Debussy style of performance that we usually hear. Melnikov’s approach to the music was obviously deeply considered. Every piece had been minutely examined, no doubt with great respect, for there was nothing that seemed deliberately willful, for mere effect: there was no question of the pianist showing off to the audience and saying, “Look how different and special I am”.

What did emerge was the pianist’s intention of pointing contrasts in the music. Slow tempi were indeed slow, with frequent hesitations or inserted commas. But then the wind in Le vent dans le plaine turned into a violent storm, the final Feu d’artifice became a virtuosic whirl with a big bang finish. Contrasts in dynamics were extreme, from the merest whisper that will yet have penetrated the farthest reaches of the hall, to mighty explosions that the acoustic could barely tolerate. Melnikov’s technical command was extraordinary, but severely disciplined by his concept of the music. Sometimes one wished that the examination had not been so searching. How good it would have been to hear the simple, direct charm of La fille aux cheveux de lin expressed naturally. But no, Melnikov had his own “take” on the music, and extra expression was laid on, not thoughtlessly, but clearly with his own sense of complete conviction.

Over-interpretation can usually be irritating, and this was sometimes the case here, but often the departures were thought-provoking and occasionally quite affecting. These were readings that one would probably not wish to hear again: if they were preserved on record they would certainly irritate on repetition. But heard once on the wing of live performance they were at the very least interesting.

Alan Sanders

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