You might think that the very grounded-looking Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov is not an obvious fit for all twenty-four of Debussy’s Préludes, works that range from the visionary to wish-you-were-here postcard japes, taking in wise-cracking caricature, Ancient Egyptian artefacts and urbane wit on the way. Yet his clear-sighted, pragmatic musicianship enabled an almost friction-free connection with the music and made its succession of rapid emotional, visual, spiritual or humorous expansions into small time-frames seem entirely natural. Melnikov used an iPad for the score, which seemed to help rather than hinder the intuitive flow of his playing and quickened this response to the blizzard of Debussy’s performing directions.
Another factor that substantially broadened the scope of his approach was his awareness and exploitation of the piano as the supreme instrument of illusion in playing that met the music’s orchestral ambitions head on. His playing also gave the more overtly pianistic and virtuosic Préludes – ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ and ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ in Book I; ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’, ‘Les tierces alternées’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’ from Book II – even more brilliance and penetration. He tended to exaggerate the fun of Préludes such as ‘Minstrels’, ‘Général Lavine – eccentric’ and Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq’, but it was done with great affection, especially in the Falstaffian girth of the Pickwick Prélude with its booming reference to the UK National Anthem, a Gallic view of the English that’s rather gone out of the window these days.
It was, though, the depth of imagination and variety of sound he brought to Debussy’s signature layers of theme and fragments of decoration working through each other and his gathering of seemingly random events that focus into a mighty focus of purpose that linger in the memory – the defined layers that contain the sensuous gravity of ‘Danseuses de Delphes’; the sense in ‘Voiles’ of a becalmed sailing-boat as fragile as a leaf at the mercy of capricious winds and suspended on the surface of a fathomless sea; the limited palette of shades of grey shrouding the melancholy of ‘Des pas sur la neige’, to be blown away by the sheer audacity of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’; all seeming to make way for ‘La cathédrale engloutie’. The latter is the longest of the Préludes, and Melnikov rose to the occasion as the cathedral loomed out of the sea with the waves crashing around its bulk, and as the vision faded Melnikov seemed to be saying, yes, you didn’t imagine it.
The layers of these pieces tended to keep within their keyboard boundaries, but in the extraordinary ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’, they were in a constant state of dissolution as Debussy’s spectators lost themselves in the mystery of the moon. Melnikov here gave a masterclass in laying down colour then washing it with pedal. There was the odd pedal-release twang during the evening, but on the whole his playing was very clean. The intimacy and quiet sensuality of ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (No.8 of Book I) opened out a whole new aspect of the Préludes and proved beyond doubt Melnikov’s ability to delve into human consciousness with astonishing and refreshing candour. He hardly needed to play an encore, but ‘The Little Shepherd’ from Children’s Corner showed how easily he accesses the child’s world of innocence.