It is unfortunate Prokofiev never had a revelatory memoir published to fight his posthumous battles for him; his complex relationship with authority and his naive belief in the sacred inviolability of art has meant his true stature remains concealed by the fog of an ideological blame-game. A virtuoso pianist-composer in his youth; the essence of his genius is distilled in his piano writing.
Despite the profound accounts of Richter, Gilels et al, brutish performances that evoke the iron foundry have done little to dispel his reputation as a political conformist, so I was delighted that Alexander Melnikov was recording a complete set. On the evidence of this first volume it will be a revelation to many. His transcendental virtuosity is never an end in itself but gives free rein to his fertile interpretive imagination, revealing the gamut of Prokofiev’s invention, originality and vision.
The Second Sonata is a remarkable work for a 21-year-old composer and Melnikov treats it as an integral part of the canon. Note the care he takes over the Andante’s accompaniment – so often blankly phrased but here invested with subtle narrative point. He relishes the comic antics of the Vivace, evoking a hilarious image of someone trying to perform an intricate manoeuvre while being repeatedly hit over the head with a C Sharp club. And despite the torrent of notes, Melnikov manages to articulate minute details with rhythmic point and gesture.
The Sixth Sonata is an astonishing performance to rate alongside Pogorelich and Kissin. The clashing chords of the opening movement are elemental rather than hectoring, its furtive mutterings amusingly cloak-and-dagger, and the build up terrifying. The Allegretto is four minutes of pianistic perfection with every chord precisely weighted and coloured, the slow movement a tragic epic with masterly layering of dynamics. The Finale is a wild ride that never lets up with sparks flying in all directions.
Surely the more amiable Eighth Sonata would be a come-down after that – but no, Melnikov reveals the work as one of the supreme masterpieces of the repertoire. The ruminative opening unfolds like some strange natural phenomenon filmed in time-lapse and as the movement proceeds Melnikov’s expressive intensity grips you by the throat. The gentle Andante sognando is a blessed relief before the fun and games of the Finale, where again you are on the edge of your seat to the very last note.
Melnikov’s mastery is awe-inspiring. He keeps microscopic detail, large periodic rhythms and architectural detail in such perfect equilibrium that the whole is deeply satisfying. Bring on volume two!