Alexander Melnikov, piano; Works by Shostakovich, Schubert and Brahms, Chan Centre, November 13, 2011

Alexander Melnikov, piano

Alexander Melnikov, piano

Dimitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 (1950/51) stand as a strikingly different work from most of those he composed in the post-war period, a celebration of both the piano and many earlier composers who had used this form, emphatically Johann Sebastian Bach.  Traditionally played only in small doses by the composer himself and the most honoured Soviet pianists, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, it was likely the recording of the complete cycle two decades ago by its dedicatee, Tatiana Nikolayeva which inspired the idea that playing all the pieces together could add up to a wonderfully-revealing whole.  Lasting over two hours, this cycle is certainly an endurance test for the performer, but it has now become the norm to play it this way.  This current concert, featuring 12 of the 24 pieces, is a pretty exciting event for Vancouverites.  38 year old, Moscow-born Alexander Melnikov is a pianist strongly identified with this work, gathering universal acclaim for his recording of the complete cycle last year for Harmonia Mundi (CD and DVD: HM 902019).  Now we can finally see for ourselves!

There is no doubt that Melnikov is a very serious pianist, expositing works methodically, while coaxing a powerful, rich sound out of his instrument.  He has an ability to play two-hand runs so commandingly that they literally create molten waves of sound, and he sustains and shades the darker tone colours with mastery.  As we saw in his opening Schubert Wanderer Fantasy, he  sometimes tends to be light on charm and poetry, operating more with strong, controlled ‘blocks’ of colour or momentum than with arching lyrical phrases or rhythmic nuance.  

Melnikov has obviously thought a great deal about how to perform the Shostakovich, bringing out the variety in the preludes but using a strong, consistent treatment of the fugues to provide overall integration.   While the richness of his tone might seem to match him very well with Rachmaninoff or Scriabin, by his own admission, the spirit of his performance points in the other direction.  A prime objective is to clarify the ‘polyphony’ in these pieces, relative to previous performers such as Nikolayeva and founding masters such as Bach.   This goal was realized very successfully.  The logic and development of each piece were excellently judged, and one could even see formal links between different preludes and fugues.   The playing was exact and expert, showing exceptional pianistic control. The tread and weight of many of the fugues really felt like Bach’s grand organ fugues, building inexorably to their conclusion.  And the verve of the two-hand counterpoint conjured up exactly how the music might sound on the harpsichord.

The downside was that the performance seemed more methodical and emotionally-neutral than it might. While technically a clear improvement on Nikolayeva, the latter still seems to find more expressive space and mystery.  A brief listen to the classic recordings of Sviatoslav Richter or the composer himself reveal an intensity level and sense of both wonder and melancholy that also make the current performance look rather plain.  Here the fugues are also given a dramatic shape and flexibility, often weaving witty little proclamations from the individual voices into a varying, but passionate, drive.  In this company, some of Melnikov’s fugues do seem too metrical and uniform, verging occasionally on the over-emphatic.  The formal foundations of these pieces may be in iron, but they often need to ‘speak’ quietly through their nerve-ends. 

Overall, this concert was a great learning experience: these wonderful little pieces should be known to everyone!  While a ‘perfect’ modern performance may remain elusive, I suggest no better introduction than the pianism on display in this artist’s CD.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011