Alexander Melnikov at Wigmore Hall – Brahms

Piano Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor, Op.2
Scherzo in E flat minor, Op.4
Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op.9

Alexander Melnikov (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 6 February, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Early Brahms is something of a focus point for Alexander Melnikov, just as it was for the great Sviatoslav Richter, who he claims as his biggest influence. This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall was a darkly passionate programme full of minor-key outpourings from a composer in his late teens.

All three of Brahms’s piano sonatas may be early works, but they are substantial. The Second is perhaps the least representative of his early style, but in this performance it came as a surprise to observe several parallels with Brahms’s polar opposite, Liszt. These came about through Melnikov’s elevation of virtuosity as a central component of his performance, along with a high volume level. The performance was never short of drama, but it was lacking in subtlety, with loud, often-shrill octaves to the right hand in the first movement, the pianist rarely drawing back enough to look at the emotional content beneath. The Andante provided a brief respite, but this too became heavy-handed in the course of its variations. The trio section of the scherzo had some nice inflections but still had an overriding impatience, which also caused the choppy phrasing in the finale. The occasional moment of delicacy found in the quieter moments was obliterated by the thunderous finish. Melnikov’s emotional commitment could not be faulted, but the piano must have been smarting from this all-out attack!

The standalone Scherzo was far more successful, Melnikov bringing out Brahms’s debt to Chopin’s second published work in the form, with which this piece shares thematic and structural common-ground. The rhythms and phrasing are uncannily similar, the triplets moving with uncertain gait, before the movement became something of a ‘march to the scaffold’ with its macabre melodies. A judicious use of rubato helped here, as did the much-more-delicate approach to the two trio sections.

The Schumann Variations found both elements of Melnikov’s approach at play, with abrupt mood-swings between brash fortissimo and poetic insight. In the soft Theme and closing paragraphs the pianist was lost in thought, creating an intimate atmosphere. Yet when virtuosity was employed his playing became far more public – the repeated notes of the fourth variation were volleyed at a cracking pace that all but removed the phrasing. There were some curious accents at times, too, but not in a disrespectful sense, for time and thought had been invested in preparation. The choice moment was the seamless turn towards the major key, not spot-lit and made wholly inevitable, the extent of Brahms’s devotion not just to Robert Schumann but also Clara made clear.

A generous encore was the first of Schubert’s (three) Klavierstücke (D946), edited and published by Brahms in 1868. The middle section was beautifully weighted, cancelling out the accelerated bluster of the outer sections, which were clipped and fast. Melnikov’s dynamic control throughout was admirable.

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