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Caviar, Champagne and Lumpfish

New York
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y
11/10/2011 -  
Franz Schubert: Fantasie in C Major, D. 760 (“Wanderer”)
Johannes Brahms: Fantasies, Opus 116
Dmitri Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues Nos 1-12, from Opus 87

Alexander Melnikov (Piano)

A. Melnikov (© 92nd St. Y)

Alexander Melnkov was the performer last night, but the honors can go somewhat to Mikhail Pletnev.

Mr. Melnikov had, for some reason, ignored the music of his homeland, specializing in the classics of Austria and Germany, and doing quite well as a young, brilliantly trained artist. Meeting with Pletnev–perhaps the most eclectic, well-traveled, linguistically ardent (he speaks excellent Thai) and most open-minded musician–Mr. Melnikov was told he might well study Russian music, past and present.

Which Mr Melnikov did. And for which we are all the better.

The first half of the program last night was devoted to Schubert and Brahms. To say that the interpretation was genteel and civilized would give a bad meaning to both words. The Schubert “Wanderer” Fantasy is always gripping, difficult, an inspirational singularity. Mr. Melnikov started with a few whimsical measures, apparently to give it time for the spacious expositions and fugues. But what this did was demonstrate the artists’s meticulous, well-practiced display, and one missed the quirkiness of Schubert’s thinking, the “fantasy” of his Fantasie.

The seven other Fantasies were by Brahms, for which I personally was underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the lack of accentuation in the first Capriccio or robotic passion in the second Capriccio. (Not that Mr. Melnikov is anything but physically very passionate, conducting himself when a hand was free or swooning over the piano when necessary.)

When given room for his nuanced architectural sense of building up a work, one could feel his intensity, as in the second and third intermezzi. Yet in a total, I felt a strange disinterest–not a coldness, certainly, not lack of energy–but perhaps an undue respect for a music which needs more personality.

The second half was a different story. First, the idea of playing “only” the first twelve preludes and fugues by Shostakovich–the composer’s paean to Bach’s original–demands the utmost in concentration. Any greatly endowed pianist can rip off some of the more jocular preludes or more complex fugues. But to take these 24 works, ranging in time from a minute to the incredible six-minute eighth fugue–to play all of them at one go–takes more than musical endowment. It takes an intensity as rare as the music itself.

I have notes for the individual pieces–the almost manic pace of the A Minor Prelude (Marked “allegro” but played here “molto vivace”, the spacious rubato of the F# Minor Prelude, the E Minor Prelude with its church-like sonorities, and my favorite, the A Major fugue, which could have been a whole host of church bells ringing in moving harmonies.

All of these were played with individual grandeur, delight, transparency. But speaking of their individual character misses the point. Like Schubert’s Fantasie, (or more aptly, the Beethoven “Diabelli” Variations), this is a work which demonstrates all the emotions, tricks, calculus, ersatz puerility, quirkiness and eccentricity that the composer could deal out.

Only a master pianist, as Mr. Melnikov could be, could turn the 24 separate works into one thrilling tapestry. I frankly have heard more exciting more inner performances on record (Ashkenazy’s for one). But listening to Mr. Melnikov transform them into such a gripping entity was worth waiting for.

Or perhaps, charitably, the pianist was holding back in the first half of the concert, waiting for this Colossus of 20th Century piano music.

At the end (the unusually jovial last fugue), I wanted to say, ”Okay. Enough. You’ve done it. The Herculean task has come to an end. Leave us with the memory.”

Instead, he played a Scriabin Poème. Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been fine. Here, after the Shostakovich, it had the effect of Danish lumpfish and Aquavit, after a 45-minute tasting of Beluga caviar and Krug Champagne.

Harry Rolnick



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