Alexander Melnikov, piano, VSO/ Christopher Seaman: Music of Beethoven and Walton, Orpheum, March 12, 2016.

There are few more highly regarded pianists today than the 42-year old Russian, Alexander Melnikov, and his much-praised recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Beethoven Violin Sonatas (with Isabelle Faust) are testimony to his masterly keyboard control, colour and imagination.  He has not yet performed the Beethoven concertos widely, and this concert’s collaboration with a fixture of the conducting establishment, Englishman Christopher Seaman, in the ‘Emperor’ Concerto was an intriguing prospect.  I have long admired Seaman’s sheer ability to get an orchestra to play, both when I saw him conduct the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and, later, the Rochester Philharmonic.  He spent a full 13 years as Music Director of the latter, and assumed the position of Conductor Laureate for Life in 2011.

To call Melnikov’s approach to the Emperor Concerto eye-opening would be an understatement: accelerating runs cascading like giant waves, only to fall back to the quietest shadows, then massive rallentandos ushering in elemental bass punctuations, followed by the most delicate musings – all were there from Melnikov’s early flourishes. The inexorability of Beethoven’s piano line, typically etched in stone, was simply replaced with a different set of interpretative axioms, one which sees the music pushing to and fro in a considerably more frenzied and unsettled fashion.  On the face of it, one might regard this playing as simply affected or narcissistic. The complication was that everything also seemed to be driven by some type of eccentric genius: I sometimes thought of the revelations of the unstoppable piano virtuosi of 80 years ago.  What was equally clear is that, if it wasn’t for the cunning conducting on hand, these experiments might have led to disaster.  Seaman controlled the orchestral tensions of the opening movement with great firmness, allowing all the pianist’s fantasies to be accommodated without apparent strain.

The pianist and conductor seemed to interact more closely in the final two movements.   Seaman’s beautifully soft and refined opening to the Adagio allowed the piano to enter a particularly rarefied space, and Melnikov was generally responsive to it, often coaxing poetry, and a warm sense of flow, from the lovely lyrical theme.  There were still eccentricities present, and many more ‘cascading runs’ in the last movement, but I was sort of used to them by this point.  With Seaman always guiding the essential message home, I found that this was still a fine Emperor, its drama, blazing spirit and nobility always in place. Not exactly a performance for the faint of heart, and clearly a work in progress, but I cannot avoid the feeling that Melnikov might be on to some new things.

Sir William Walton’s First Symphony has rarely received hearings here, and I was delighted that Christopher Seaman brought it to us in such a fine performance.  This was not a brilliant or heaven-storming account such as one might find from Sir Simon Rattle or Edward Gardner.  Rather, what impressed me most were its stubborn ‘old school’ qualities of natural forward motion, energy, balance, and clarity, characteristics that took me directly to the conductors that Seaman played for in his earliest days as timpanist for the London Philharmonic: Sir Adrian Boult and Sir John Pritchard. The opening Allegro blossomed so easily from its quiet start, the string phrases sharp and full of life, with the horns precise and full, and the trumpets accurate.  There can be a temptation to push this movement dramatically early on, but Seaman built the movement with judgement, holding back until its real climax at the end. 

The long Andante had particularly fine organic development, clean and flowing with a natural ease and exquisite wind playing, but also showing a strong unanimity in the massed strings when required.  One can imagine a more overwhelming finale – noting all its ceremonial flourish and the like – but this treatment was absolutely musical, and in keeping with the performance as a whole.  As with Boult, I was impressed how no important detail got covered, and the jagged, thrusting edges that propel the music were revealed so consistently.  A very satisfying experience overall and I thought the VSO’s playing was very impressive: committed and precise, with evident unanimity and balance.

© Geoffrey Newman 2016