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Friday, November 11, 2011

Concert Review: The Triumph of Formalism

Alexander Melnikov debuts at the 92nd St. Y.
Alexander Melnikov.
Photo © 2010 harmonia mundi USA.

On Thursday night, Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov made his solo recital debut at the 92nd St. Y. The Russian pianist offered an ambitious program of Schubert, Brahms and Shostakovich.

The concert opened with Schubert's Wanderer-Fantasie, the composer's most challenging work for solo piano. Mr. Melnikov played the ringing challenge of the opening with appropriate force, and then launched into the extravagant, complicated arpeggios that so inspired later composers like Liszt.

The slow parts of the Fantasy (which incorporate material from Schubert's song The Wanderer) was played with grace, the piano notes shifting like dappled leaves. The final fast section provided the opportunity for more bravura playing, and this challenging music seemed suited to Mr. Melnikov's head-on approach.

Johannes Brahms wrote the Fantasies for Solo Piano (Op. 116) five years before his death. They consist of seven alternating Capriccio movements (played very fast and with great force) and slower Intermezzos that explore the composer's more tender side. A theme from one of these Intermezzos may have also inspired the Largo in the New World Symphony by Brahms' protége Antonín Dvorak.

Mr. Melnikov gave an even-handed reading of these sturdy pieces, bringing out the dark colors of the composer's writing for the left hand and the lighter, contrasting passages for the Right. This was not the most exciting Brahms performance, but it was steady and well-executed. It might be argued that while these are very fine pieces, the later music of Brahms is not always the most exciting.

The work everyone was eager to hear was on the second part of the program: the first twelve of Dmitri Shostakovich's challenging Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues for Solo Piano. Written to celebrate a Bach competition in 1951, the Shostakovich works are built on the model of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. However, where Bach explores all of the tonalities in order, Shostakovich organizes his Preludes and Fugues in the order of tonal relationships by fifths.

All twenty-four Preludes and Fugues have been recorded by Mr. Melnikov (for harmonia mundi) and are known to be a specialty of this young artist. So it was surprising to see a score brought to the piano, complete with an assistant to turn pages for the pianist when necessary. The pianist took his time working through the preludes, with stops to mop his brow and adjust his piano stool.

Mannerisms aside, these were strong performances of the first half of this marathon album of works. These fugues use a wide variety of styles, from neo-baroque to the composer's own blend of Russian post-Romanticism and sarcastic wit. Most impressive: the delicate Prelude in D, with opening piano figurations that sounded as if they were being played backward. Mr. Melnikov returned for a brief encore, showing his legato and impressionistic skills with Alexander Scriabin’s Poeme No. 1, Op. 32.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.