Here’s a great idea; matching four monuments of the repertoire with four instruments of the period – virtuoso pieces that stretched the pianos of the day to the extremes of their expressive possibilities.
Previous performances of Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie on fortepianos have usually resulted in 20 minutes of clatter in C Major, but not so here; Melnikov’s lovely Graff from the late 1820s has a richer sound but still retains the nutty bass and tangy treble of the earlier models. He draws such colours from the different registers and moderator pedal as to orchestrate the piece – the plummy baritone like a portly bassoon.
Chopin’s Op. 10 Études played on restorer Edwin Beunk’s 1837 Érard carries a whiff of scented salon elegance – the glittering treble almost harp-like at times of breathtaking beauty – but sparks fly aplenty. Melnikov takes No 3 at a flowing speed, making up for the instrument’s shorter decay by obeying the ma non troppo rider – it works beautifully in context as a respite rather than a stray nocturne.
Chopin dedicated the set to Liszt and wrote to a friend, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies” – and Melnikov doesn’t hold back. Nor does he for Réminiscences de Don Juan, Liszt’s over-the-top reworking of tunes from Mozart’s opera, its diablerie dialled up to 11 in a barn-storming performance, pushing Melnikov’s 1875 Bösendorfer to the limit. Note how he exploits the particular character of the leather-clad hammers giving the Commendatore’s ghostly utterances an otherworldly sonority. He makes a virtue of the register imbalance of reticent treble and pushy baritone in the Là ci darem la mano variations – Zerlina doesn’t stand a chance and is dragged down to hell with him (strange how Liszt obsessed over that tune) – the final pages are coruscating. A thrilling reading evoking a summer’s evening at the Villa D’Este when, encouraged after a few glasses of Tokay, the old Abbé quietly approached the piano.
As for the final work, Stravinsky’s Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka played on a modern Steinway, I may run out of superlatives. Think of Pollini’s drive and clarity with the temperature raised a few notches in terms of dramatic flair – it sweeps all before it and lifts the roof.
This release is a marvellous bit of programming with revelatory performances that satisfy the intellect and the senses – there are even some moments that evoke chuckles of delight; I recall a scene in a Marx Brothers film when Chico hits a chord and the piano explodes – hammers and keys flying in all directions.
Composer: Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky
Composition: Wanderer-Fantasie, Douze Études, Grande Fantaisie, Trois Mouvements de Pétrouchka
Performer: Alexander Melnikov p
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM902299
Alexander Melnikov’s Four Pianos is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in May. Read our interview here.