Four Pianos/Four Pieces = SCHUBERT: Wanderer-Fantasie; CHOPIN: Etudes, Op. 10; LISZT: Réminiscences de Don Juan; STRAVINSKY: Petruchka – Alexander Melnikov, pianos – Harmonia mundi

Four Pianos/Four Pieces = SCHUBERT: Wanderer-Fantasie in C Major, D. 760; CHOPIN: 12 Etudes, Op. 10; LISZT: Reminiscences de Don Juan, S. 418; STRAVINSKY: Trois Mouvements de Petruchka – Alexander Melnikov, pianos – Harmonia mundi HMM 902299, 79:34 (3/9/18) ****:

Alexander Melnikov addresses four keyboard works in terms of their contemporary instruments, and the results often astound.

Recorded October 2016-July 2017, these performances realize a project conceived by pianist Alexander Melnikov to select four significant keyboard works and to play them on instruments contextually relevant to the cultural milieu. The opening 1822 Wanderer Fantasy of Franz Schubert Melnikov realizes on an instrument by Alois Graf (c. 1828-1835), which permits Melnikov—even in spite of six and one half octave range—astonishing resonance and pungency, given the sheer technical virtuosity and sonority of acoustical motion the piece requires. The pounding opening bars pay homage to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, while the later melodic tissue derives from Schubert’s own song—so spiritually endemic of the Romantic Age—Der Wanderer. The single-movement structure, subdividing into four sections, becomes a Schubert trademark, eventually spawning likenesses in Liszt’s b minor Sonata and the string sextet Verklaerte Nacht of Schoenberg. The lyrical transitions into E Major and E-flat Major occur with disarming finesse, while the assertive revival of the Presto’s ur-rhythm achieves a fiendish buoyancy. For my own part, my preferred versions—on the modern keyboard—have embraced Edwin Fischer and Gary Graffman.  Still, Melnikov thrusts forward in an exultation of motion that transfers directly into the fugal Allegro whose polyphonic texture informs the last movement of Liszt’s Eine Faust-Sinfonie.  A whirlwind performance, this, truly hair-raising while never abandoning the lyric suasion that defines the Schubertian ethos.

For his next trick, Melnikov sits before a Paris-born 1837 Erard instrument from the Edwin Beunk collection, with a six and three-fourths octave range, the hammers covered in felt. Melnikov’s purpose: to perform the dozen Etudes, Op. 10 (1833) by Frederic Chopin , which still serve as the technical foundation of virtually all contemporary keyboard composition.  The C Major, a variant of Bach’s own first Prelude, offers arpeggios in pedal points whose chromatics stretch the hands. The second etude, in the relative minor, stretches the hands while punishing the three weak fingers. Legato, with cross-accents, the piece does well on the Erard, which dampens the otherwise hard sonorities the Steinway often imposes. The songful No. 3 in E Major Melnikov does not allow any false sentiment: legato, we hear virtually two themes played against each other. The middle section rings with drama. Spare pedal and lightning hands define the No. 4 in c-sharp minor, a toccatas in legato that passes theme between the hands, occasionally in contrary motion. The No. 5, the so-called “black key” etude, the Erard treats with love, allowing accent and counterpoint to ring in modulated, nuanced colors. The e-flat minor No. 6 achieves a haunted aura—due to the intricacy of its harmonic rhythm—from Melnikov, in brisk-moving, chromatic legato.

Syncopes define the challenges of No. 7 in C Major, with two melodic lines in opposite dynamics. Despite Melnikov’s moderate tempo, the piece still sounds intensely complex. The F Major, No. 8, wants legato in the midst of polyphony, with the sustaining pedal to highlight the bass line. The brief motion into d minor proves silken here, and the ending in parallel motion subtle as aromatic oil. Highly modulated, the f minor, No. 9, I always consider the most “Lisztian” of the Op. 10, with its demonic arpeggios that reveal a “buried” melodic line out of bel canto. Melnikov realizes the sobs,” sotto voce, quite effectively. The A-flat has its own demons, legato and staccato, syncopated. The various modulations into foreign major keys demand an equally diverse number of touches. Rolled chords in ¾ usher in the E-flat Major, No. 11, which used to “belong” to Josef Lhévinne, whose hands could accommodate the mighty spans. The demands on wrist and digital articulation to maintain the melody line remains daunting, but Melnikov manages to convince us he is worthy.  Melnikov comes to the stormy c minor, “Revolutionary” Etude, with its grueling left hand part, its fast runs and turbulent octaves. Interior conflicts arise in terms of conflicting rhythms, and yet the tempo must remain constant. Despite the relative brevity of the etude, we feel that Chopin has communed with Beethoven.

Melnikov now turns to the 1875 Boesendorfer with traditional action of felt and leather hammers for Liszt’s 1843 (rev. 1869) Reminiscences de Don Juan, which Busoni claimed “almost symbolic. . .as the highest point of pianism.” The Reminiscences derives from four distinct scenes from the opera. Liszt posits the “La ci darem la mano” aria as a true duet for the hands one octave apart. Zerlina’s part has markings piano e dolce and parlando to emphasize her character. Liszt freely adapts aspects of the Stone Guest, the Commendatore’s persona to unify the piece as synoptic of the opera as a whole. Meanwhile, given Liszt’s capacity for fioritura and transformation of theme, virtually every virtue of his technique manages to exhibit itself in bravura fashion.  The sheer weight of the stretti alone threatens to overwhelm the music with technique. But by Variazione 2 the stage has been set for the explosive finale based on the ‘Champagne Aria.” Finally, after a marvelously light trill, the music breaks out, Quasi Presto – Tempo deciso, rife with humorous touches and Herculean thunder. The seven octaves of the Boesendorfer conspire in a symphonic blend of opera and grand fantasy, wrought on a gigantic scale.

For his last gambit, Melnikov wants a 2014 Steinway & Sons, model D-274, for the Stravinsky 1921 arrangement of Three Movements from Petrouchka made especially for pianist Artur Rubinstein.  Stravinsky wished not a “reduction” from his ballet but a fully equipped, percussive concert piece that would exploit the full range the performing virtuoso’s instrument. Melnikov approaches the piece attacca, without any hesitation from the Danse russe to Chez Petrouchka. The “diabolical cascade of arpeggios” captures the whimsy and mercurial character of the puppewt, endowed with remarkable life. The piano often imitates orchestral effects, especially in the suggestion of trumpet calls and wiry woodwinds. The grand finale, the (Technicolor) Shrovetide Fair, dazzlingly whirls us through a shimmering, towering masquerade. Here, I must recall that Gina Bachauer no less impressed me with her sprightly gravitas in this music. The obligations to Liszt soon reveal themselves even in the midst of sweeping, Russian rhetoric and its flurry of repeated notes, blistering scales and glissandi, and the heroic melody line.

Quite a series of four rides: the sound images courtesy of Sebastian Nattkemper and Tobias Lehmann. This disc seems bound for “classic” status.

—Gary Lemco

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