18 January 2018

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, & Franz Liszt — PIANO WORKS (Alexei Melnikov, piano; Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217)

IN REVIEW: L. van Beethoven, F. Chopin, & F. Liszt - PIANO WORKS (Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827), FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810 – 1849), FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886): Piano Works—Alexei Melnikov, piano [Recorded at Campus Fichtenhain, Krefeld-Fichtenhain, Germany, 1 – 3 March 2017; Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217; 1 CD, 62:10; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

On 15 July 1909, the Leipzig-born pianist Wilhelm Backhaus entered the fledgling HWV studio, then only seventeen months along in its life in the wake of its formation as a branch of the Gramophone Company, and recorded a six-minute abridgment of Edvard Grieg’s Opus 16 Piano Concerto in A minor. Twenty-five years old at the time, Backhaus was already well advanced in a career that would endure war, political upheaval, and unfortunate associations. Though hardly the first recording of music for piano and amounting to nothing more than a small fragment of one of the cornerstones of the piano repertory, those six minutes of Grieg were revolutionary. With that recording, an acknowledged master of the instrument recognized and validated the legitimacy of the art of recording piano music. It was an auspicious development in the relationship between music and technology, a relationship that in the subsequent century has evolved in ways that even a visionary like Backhaus could not have foreseen.

Whether the medium is acetate, vinyl, magnetic tape, plastic, or digital coding, the objective of recording music for piano has remained constant: by faithfully reproducing the combinations of sounds that a musician cajoles from the piano, a recording preserves an unique performance via which the distances that separate composer, performer, and listener are closed. In this sense of sharing the emotional proximity between music and musician with the listener, Alexei Melnikov’s Acousence Records recital of music for piano by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt is a noteworthy success. What makes this disc so special, however, is the opportunity that it affords the hearer to experience the artistic coming of age of a pianist with traits much like those that Backhaus brought to the HMV studio in 1909. Insightful, intelligent, adventurous, and abidingly musical, Melnikov is a young artist who life and training span two millennia but whose passion for the communicative power of music is shown by this disc to be of timeless profundity.

A prize winner in a number of prestigious international competitions, native Muscovite Melnikov was born in 1990, beginning his journey at a time of extraordinary change in his homeland. Especially in an era in which any child with a keyboard, a means of recording video, and an internet connection can aspire to being the next online sensation, he is now hardly a novice, but neither the extensiveness of a musician’s experience nor his age constitutes maturity. In this instance, it is his playing—recorded by Acousence in an appealingly intimate acoustic ambiance that places the listener at the pianist’s side, sensing the movement of his fingers and wrists and the vibrations of the strings before him—that divulges the state of Melnikov’s artistic cultivation. The hallmarks of nationalistic schools of pianism are now only memories that can be revisited in recordings from prior generations, but there are in Melnikov’s playing on this disc reminiscences of the style of his countryman Sviatoslav Richter, not least in the obvious commitment to approaching music without agenda or artifice. It is virtually impossible to wholly avoid egotism in achieving the level of technical mastery necessary to focus on interpreting complex pieces rather than getting the notes right, but Melnikov channels the drive to perform at his best into a conscious desire to be the catalyst that facilitates listeners’ reactions to composers’ musical narratives. The three pieces selected for this disc are very different in substance and structure but strikingly similar in the immediacy of their emotional storytelling, and it is as a teller of these stories that Melnikov seizes the imagination.

Composed during the first years of the Nineteenth Century, a period of great personal struggle during which the composer was compelled to confront his increasing deafness, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (Opus 57)—not given its traditional appellation of Appassionata until a decade after the composer’s death—continues after more than two hundred years to be regarded as one of the most difficult sonatas in the standard repertory. Like much of Beethoven’s music, the Appassionata is susceptible to being made ridiculous by pianists who overdo the histrionics in wrongheaded pursuits of metaphysical context for the Sonata. The music is brooding and bleak, but it is music, not a series of aural hieroglyphics awaiting decoding. Melnikov executes the score without affectation, focusing on what exists in the music rather than on its Existential implications.

Unsurprisingly, the writing in octaves that is a vital component of Beethoven’s presentation of thematic material in the Sonata’s opening Allegro assai movement makes no demands to which Melnikov’s technique is not equal, and the fluidity of his delivery is impressive. The music’s inherent instability, conveyed by churning arpeggios, is meaningfully imparted without being unduly emphasized. The beautifully simple principal subject of the Andante con moto movement is phrased with understated eloquence that persists in Melnikov’s handling of the variations. It is all too easy for pianists to fall into the trap of encumbering this music with saccharine emoting, but the young pianist here circumvents this obstacle by playing straightforwardly and allowing the connection between music and listener to guide his interpretation. Melnikov’s playing of the Allegro ma non troppo – Presto finale is admirably accurate, his grasps on the movement’s rhythmic transitions and the intricacies of the Sonata’s expansive coda unfaltering. Beethoven has long been cited, perhaps apocryphally, as having asserted that playing without passion is far more damaging to music than playing wrong notes. The playing of some very famous pianists has substantiated the sagacity of Beethoven’s alleged observation, but Melnikov’s performance of the Appassionata is one of the finest recorded examples of how strikingly modern the Sonata can sound when performed with both passion and precision.

It is not necessary to attempt to count its appearances on every aural medium in order to discern that Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor (Opus 48, No. 1) has amassed a discography more extensive than that of almost any other piece in two-and-a-half centuries of piano literature. In the company of recordings by virtually every noteworthy pianist of the past hundred years, it is now tremendously difficult for any artist to bring originality to a recorded performance of the Nocturne without also approaching it with idiosyncrasy that is a disservice to both Chopin and the listener. Remarkably, Melnikov plays the Nocturne with an abiding sense of individuality that remains wholly faithful to the score. As in an aria by Bellini, whose work Chopin knew and admired, the melodic line is of paramount importance, and the pianist negotiates the interplay of the primary and secondary subjects, as well as the shift from Lento to Poco più lento, with resourcefulness that intensifies rather than diluting the composer’s distinctive expressivity.

Almost since the piece first appeared in print in 1854, Franz Liszt’s mammoth Piano Sonata in B minor (S.178) has confounded pianists, audiences, and musicologists. Essentially through-composed in the manner of an expansive, half-hour tone poem for solo piano, the Sonata’s construction has ignited debates about Liszt’s intentions, namely whether the piece was conceived as a single movement or should be viewed as a progression of interconnected movements played without pause. With his performance of the Sonata on this disc, Melnikov espouses neither theory, preferring to concentrate on surmounting the score’s many difficulties and allowing the listener to seek clues within the music.

The naturalness of the recorded sound is a great boon to Melnikov’s performance of the Liszt Sonata, enabling the listener to fully appreciate the contrasting delicacy and power of the pianist’s control of the clarion-toned Shigeru Kawai instrument at his disposal. The full emotional effect of the brief Lento assai introduction is realized in Melnikov’s performance, and the piano’s keys gallop beneath his fingers in his playing of the Sonata’s Allegro energico episode. The pomposity in this reading of the Grandioso section is Liszt’s, not Melnikov’s, and the conversational directness of the pianist’s reading of the Recitativo passages initiates a dialogue among the Sonata’s competing thematic fragments.

The pulse of bel canto beats unmistakably in this maneuvering of the Andante sostenuto heart of the Sonata, and the significance of the return to Allegro energico is spotlit by the drive with which it is accomplished. Melnikov observes Liszt’s cantando espressivo marking with sophistication matched by the zeal of his launching of the following Stretta quasi presto. The course from Presto to Prestissimo is traced with dynamism that lends the recurrence of the Andante sostenuto heightened psychological force. From this apex, the path to the Sonata’s resolution is carved through Allegro moderato and Lento assai terrain, and the descent is effectuated in this performance with athletic agility. The clarity of Melnikov’s navigation of Liszt’s contrapuntal writing reveals the composer’s prowess as a steward of long-established musical forms. It is not without justification that the Liszt Sonata is a piece that pianists add to their repertoires only after acute study. Melnikov’s study yields a rousing, revelatory account of the Sonata—rousing in its traversal of Liszt’s craggy musical topography and revelatory in its manifestation of its player’s abilities.

Comparisons of one pianist’s performances with those of other pianists are often as pointless as they are inevitable, but they are sometimes useful in providing a benchmark against which a young artist’s work can be measured. In the context of Melnikov’s playing on this disc, the most apt comparison is with Edith Farnadi, whose interpretations of music by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, exemplified by her 1954 Westminster recording of the Liszt Sonata, possessed an analogous balance between mood and momentum. At least since the 1960 release of Johnny Tillotson’s version of the pop song with the title, the notion of ‘poetry in motion’ has been a cliché, but it is an apposite description of Farnadi’s work. As he plays Beethoven’s Appassionata, one of Chopin’s most affecting Nocturnes, and Liszt’s B-minor Sonata on this disc, his commercial recording début, Alexei Melnikov’s artistry also embodies kinetic lyricism. Above all, the performances on this disc beget an enticing question: what comes next for this erudite pianist?