Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alexander Melnikov in Recital

The Frederic Chopin Society has been bringing talented pianists to Minnesota for about twenty-five years. Usually the pianists are not household names. Though it has sponsored such well-known artists as Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Hough, Angela Hewitt, Richard Goode, Imogen Cooper, Jonathan Biss, and Simone Dinnerstein, one of the organization's great gifts is that it consistently finds brilliant lesser-known pianists, ones who nearly always give satisfying performances. Sadly, my attendance has fallen off a bit and until today I had not attended one of the Chopin Society's recitals in several years. After Alexander Melnikov's recital on November 6, I am once more excited about the society's offerings.

The concert venue, Hamline University's Sundin Music Hall, was excellent. The 326-seat auditorium was very pleasant and has superb acoustics. All the seats were filled, but the audience, with one particularly notable exception, was one of the quietest and best mannered I have observed. Perhaps this exceptionally warm November has forestalled the cold season, the perennial enemy of Minnesota piano recitals.

Alexander Melnikov is a Russian pianist who is said to be heavily influenced by Sviatoslav Richter. Though I never saw Richter in recital, Melnikov's approach seems in line with Richter's reputation and what I hear on Richter's recordings. Melnikov appeared dressed all in black and is a tall, imposing figure. While a moderate showman--on stage neither a milquetoast, like Pollini, or a clown, as Lang Lang can sometimes be--his playing is powerful and very aggressive. At times during this recital he approached the brink of loss of control, but always reined himself back in.

It's hard to think of a better way to begin a recital program than with the opening sonorities of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy. The four-movement fantasy is based on one of Schubert's Lieder and after you have heard the opening of this piece a few times you never forget it. My knowledge of it comes from my Pollini and Kissin recordings. Melnikov let the audience know from the beginning of the piece that he was not going to hold much back. The closing minutes of the third movement and the entirety of the fourth were a savage and delectable assault on the Steinway. This was a point where Melinkov seemed to push his technique to the limit--and I think with good results. The tempo of the closing fugue was quite fast and I could not help thinking that there was a dash of Rachmaninoff in my Schubert.

The set of Brahms opus 116 pieces were next. The first of the set, a D-minor Capriccio, was again played aggressively. At times the piano seemed to be treated as if it were Melinkov's enemy. But his fierceness was in reserve during the haunting A-minor Intermezzo. Here, I thought the concert hall proved its acoustical merit: I was sitting near the back, but do not recall ever hearing such wonderfully clear quiet passages. These late Brahms pieces seemed to fit Melinkov's style very well.

The second half of the program consisted of the first twelve of Shostakovich's opus 87 Preludes and Fugues. Melinkov played with a score, but his mastery of these pieces made this seem more a habit than a necessity. What fascinated me about these pieces, ones I have heard occasionally but do not know well, was the extent to which Shostakovich showed that he mastered the manner of Bach. There are parts of Prelude No. 10 and Fugues 1, 4, 6, and 10 that could be be taken for Bach. But elsewhere there were modern and post-modern tonalities that nobody could mistake for anyone other than a 20th-century composer. My favorite of the pieces was the Fugue No. 8, which starts with a very long theme, perhaps 40 to 50 notes, that is very reminiscent of a bird song--though perhaps one with hints of modernism. Another favorite, the last Fugue played, No. 12, was pure Shostakovich. No Bach here: instead a piece of driving intensity that builds to what almost seems a false ending and then quits quietly. Too bad that there was that one loud cough just as the piece was drifting into silence.

All of Melnikov's offerings were well received by the audience. But despite three bows, there were no encores. I am usually disappointed if there are no encores, but on this occasion Melnikov's decision was exactly correct. He had offered two-and-a-half hours of exceptionally fine music and the audience left the hall sated and smiling.

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Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.