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Alexander Melnikov @ Phillips

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Shostakovich, Piano Concertos 1/2, A. Melnikov, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, T. Currentzis
We looked forward to hearing Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov in person, after years of admiring his recordings, and the chance came on Sunday afternoon, with his recital at the Phillips Collection. In many ways, it was a barnburner of a concert -- featuring three of the most demanding composers in some of their most difficult pieces -- but in other ways it was Melnikov's subtlety at the keyboard, when he did not have to be walloping it, that stood out the most. This kind of program, with exceptionally loud music from an exceptionally powerful player, may force the Phillips to reconsider, at least in some cases, this season's decision to move the piano to the center of the room, with seating all around it. Having the instrument that close to a wall, and the wall that close to listeners' ears, only made matters worse. At least in the former location, at the far end of the hall, beyond a sort of archway, there is some distance for the sound to travel.

Schumann's Symphonic Etudes have rarely sounded as convincing as they were in Melnikov's hands. Melnikov played all of the movements originally published by Schumann, including the two non-variation etudes (3 and 9) that the composer later removed from the work. He also interpolated the last two of the lost variations that Schumann did not allow to be included, which were later published by Brahms, placing them between Etudes 7 and 8. Melnikov, while not a historically informed performance (HIP) specialist by any means, has done some interesting work with historical instruments, as in his recording of the Brahms sonatas, and with performance practice scholarship. He played much of the Schumann with little to no sustaining pedal, including the third movement (Vivace), which made the right-hand violin-like figuration dry and spiky. While the fast movements pushed the envelope of velocity with astounding accuracy and excitement, the slow movements were intensely espressivo, wisps and tendrils of music slowly unfurled. The finale was just about as astonishing as we have ever heard it (played by Yuja Wang, among others), with even the loudest chords expertly voiced rather than just hammered.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Pianist Alexander Melnikov embodies what’s best about Phillips recital series (Washington Post, February 26)
Like Yuja Wang, Melnikov paired the Schumann with Prokofiev's gigantic, terrifying, ear-splintering sixth sonata, giving it so much power in the barbaric first movement, all thorns and daggers, and seeming possessed in a powerful, demonic finale. The second movement was genteel by comparison, a suavely pedaled, not at all grotesque Allegretto, and a dreamy slow movement, not quite as varied in touch at the soft end of the spectrum as I remember Evgeny Kissin's Prokofiev. In between came a tumultuous, rhapsodic performance of Scriabin's B minor fantasy, op. 28, matched at the end by a Scriabin encore, the Poème, op. 32, no. 1. "I hate playing loud," Melnikov said as he introduced the encore, obviously aware that the bombastic program could be too much in the small room. We did not hate hearing it.

The next concert at the Phillips Collection will feature violist Matthew Lipman and pianist Nimrod David Pfeffer (March 3, 4 pm).

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