A Wigmore Hall Recital by Alexander Melnikov on Three Pianos

18/01/2018

Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Stravinsky: Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London. 17.1.2018. (CC)

Schubert – Fantasy in C, D760, ‘Wanderer’ (1822) Played on a copy of a Conrad Graf fortepiano, Vienna 1824

Chopin – Etudes. Op 10 (1830-32) Played on an 1837 Erard fortepiano (Paris)

Liszt – Réminiscences de Don Juan, S 418 (1841) Played on an 1837 Erard fortepiano (Paris)

Stravinsky – Three Pieces from Petrushka (1911-21) Played on a Steinway Model D

Boasting what must have been one of the best attended pre-concert talks at the Wigmore Hall, this fascinating event presented three instruments, all onstage concurrently: two wonderful fortepianos and a Steinway concert grand we are all, surely, used to. The idea was to present instruments constructed near to the time of three of the various works’ composition: only the Graf for the Schubert was a copy. Both the Graf and the Erard were supplied by the Edwin Beunk Collection in the Netherlands.

Melnikov spoke eloquently and honestly about the task before him. The programme was a fearsome one (the note count must have been astronomical); the segue from Schubert to Chopin was swift, to crown it all, with Melnikov remaining on stage and simply moving from one instrument to another. The problem was, it all felt too relentless anyway. In both works in the first half there were surprising and frequent technical slips that became off-putting. The opening of the Schubert obviously lacked the bass resonance of the Steinway, and later Melnikov added some remarkably late-Romantic rubato which was sometimes interruptive to the musical argument in the first movement. The characteristics of the instrument were fascinating – clarity in the bass and crystal sound in the high treble – but the shape of the piece overall needed finer articulation. Accuracy in the finale suffered both in terms of fidelity to the actual notes in the text but also in terms of rhythm, which was sometimes decidedly wayward.

The Erard for the Chopin offered a rounder sound, and the bass register was nicely formed (some lovely bass staccato from Melnikov in the A minor) While clarity was still palpably there, the ability to sustain a melodic line was far greater than on the Graf. The midrange of the instrument felt rather muted, too; smudging, a recurrent issue of this performance, was more to do with Melnikov than the instrument itself, though, I found. Again rhythmically there were moments when things felt rather pressed, as if Stravinsky was weighing on the pianist’s mind.

Which maybe it was, and maybe Liszt was too. The Liszt Réminiscences de Don Juan (on the Erard) held distinct points of interest, not least the clarity of the rapid bass of the opening rumblings or in the vocal quality of the instrument’s baritone/low tenor register (for the statement of ‘La ci darem’). Melnikov was able to show his playful side but one did notice the perilous edge to some passages. It was the Stravinsky pieces though that brought us back to the piano sound of today. Positioned at the back of the stage, and therefore more out of eyeline than usual (not that it matters much from the critics’ seats at the very back of the hall in terms of visuals), Melnikov has all the finger-strength and finger virtuosity for this work, and certainly has the dynamic range. This was by far the most enjoyable performance of the evening, full of character as well as the expected pianistic miracles.

One wondered if an encore would be forthcoming after that second half programme, but there it was, offering a sense of peace that was largely missing in the recital proper: Chopin’s E minor Prelude from Op.28, on the Erard.

Colin Clarke

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