Alexander Melnikov’s passion for playing on historically appropriate instruments bore tremendous fruit on his last album, on which he performed Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky on carefully-chosen, chronologically-matched pianos. He makes a similarly sensitive choice on this disc, part of Harmonia Mundi’s collection of releases commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s death.
The Érard of the composer’s day on which Melnikov performs here sounds more delicate, more refined and more brittle (particularly in the bass) than a modern concert grand, and with the pianist taking nothing for granted, this survey of the Préludes transports you, vividly, into a salon in pre-WWI Paris; Melnikov’s playing is reminiscent of that age too, in its inquisitive, subjective, bold approach to the text. “Not so much préludes as visual impressions enclosed in a sort of framework,” was how one of Debussy’s contemporaries described this music, and Melnikov’s intensely atmospheric playing suggests this kind of thinking throughout, from the shimmering greyness of the opening Mists to the swiftly shifting colours of the final Fireworks.
It may seem perverse to render so profoundly orchestral a work as La Mer on piano, but before the age of the recording, many pieces were introduced this way. Melnikov and Olga Pashchenko are dazzlingly good – but if you’re familiar
with the work in its original guise this could be a frustrating experience.