Challenging audiences, journeying unexpected roads, curating marathon projects others never think about is something Alexander Melnikov is rather adept at. This album highlights the Romantic piano from wooden beast to cast-iron monster – a venture he's been touring this season. Four instruments are featured, two from his own collection restored by Edwin Beunk: a five-pedal Viennese action Alois Graf (c.1828-35, 6.5 octaves from bottom C, leather-covered hammer-heads) – Schubert; a double-escapement action Paris Érard (1837, 6.75 octaves from bottom C, felt-covered hammers) – Chopin; a two-pedal Viennese Bösendorfer (c.1875, 7 octaves from bottom A) – Liszt; and a current three-pedal Steinway D-274 (2014, 7.25 octaves) – Stravinsky.
While effectively creating a sounding history of the piano, straight- to cross-strung, around four cornerstones of the repertory spanning one-hundred years, 1822-1921, Melnikov, however, is at pains to point out (in an informative booklet essay) that in making this recording he has had “no ambition of being ‘historically correct’ in any way ... The compelling idea of putting this music into the right context, at least instrumentally, can only be realised to a limited extent, not least because we shall never know how these pianos [three of them, anyway] were actually meant to sound when they were new.”
At the end of the day – for eighty-percent of the disc – what we are presented with are the bones, muscles and visages of familiar old friends dusted off and costumed in the individualised 'period' nuances and 'speaking' properties of antique mechanicals recorded by a contemporary pianist in an upgraded twentieth-century studio of clinical acoustic with twenty-first century audiophile technology (high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit) and production values. All pretty remote, really, from the analogue warmth, space and intimacy of the velvet-curtained surroundings and salons that Schubert, Chopin or Liszt knew. As for that perfume of improvisation, temporal nuance or off-the-cuff elaboration which was so much part-and-parcel of the Romantic manner from before Chopin to after Rachmaninov, there is scarcely a whiff. Dots on the page under bright stage-lights is the order of the hour, less muses or rosewood caseworks by gas lamp.
Melnikov plays these early pianos seemingly without concession to fragility or limitations. Digging deep, his playing is power-driven, each action noise caught by the microphones, the consequences engineered as big and upfront as any modern instrument. His tough, symphonically argued view of Schubert's cyclic ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is splendid, with a finely judged first movement, its Beethovenian, fatefully obsessive, dactylic Hauptrhythmus timed to perfection. The 'scherzo' thrills with incisiveness and the fugal Finale (so loved by Liszt) soars to glorious heights, emphatic without being excessive: by the end, white C-major arpeggios roaring and ringing in Bacchanalian splendour, you want to get up and cheer. But it's the C-sharp minor Adagio that casts a special spell, a haunting mix of darkness – una corda one presumes (when an 1820s’ una corda was just that, not a latter-day half-ghost) – and purling harp-timbred runs arcing like so many shooting-stars across the sky.
Interpretatively, Chopin's first book of Studies, dedicated to Liszt, finds Melnikov in technically aristocratic, note-hungry mood. He leaves us in no doubt of his pianistic pedigree (he studied in Moscow with Naumov). But while there is much to tingle the palette (I, II, IV, X & XII – demonstration stuff), I find his inclination to push on more impatient than illuminating. III (brisk), VI (breathless, insensitive), VIII (wanting in grace), IX, the left-hand stretching F-minor (too literally agitato), and XI (matter-of-fact) leave me wondering about his deeper perceptions. “When I am not in the mood”, Chopin maintained, “I play on the Érard piano, where I find the ready tone easily. But when I am full of vigour and strong enough to find my very own tone – I need a Pleyel.” Melnikov's exemplar is richly dimensioned, opaque yet defined in the mid to bass range, crystalline in the treble – the sort of beauteous duchess inviting one to play. For an alternative, more luminously imaged Érard try Tatiana Shebanova's 'throwback' recording of these works featuring an 1849 model (Fryderyk Chopin Institute) – a musically profounder overview.
For Liszt, Melnikov favours a “temperamental” Bösendorfer, technologically less advanced than its Parisian rivals but aesthetically echt-Viennese in sound, Brahms vintage, yielding an enormous range of colours and densities. Taking the Reminiscences of Don Juan (Mozart’s Don Giovanni) head on, he gives a no-holds-barred account, notes exploding everywhere, chords flung like thunderbolts from Olympus, octaves spearing the heavens, low B-flats shaking the bedrock, cadenzas showering the land in dazzles of finesse and ferocity. If it's not the greatest reading, it's perhaps because Melnikov goes so often for hyperbole, over-lighting the drama, pulverising line and texture, taking us within the stonework rather than encouraging us to relish from beyond. One needs air and perspective, more fantasy, more variety of touch. Come the ‘Duetto’, we get a characterisation erring towards the coyness of Cherkassky but without his wit. Compared with, say, Earl Wild (a minute quicker overall), the ‘Champagne Aria’ falls short of a glass or two, the kiss and delirium of the precipitous pauses (so telling) held back by a safety net.
The Steinway used for the Stravinsky is a physical instrument, rather bland, shrill in its upper two octaves, grainy in the bass. Handling it like a Formula One driver, Melnikov speeds through Petrushka with scarcely time to let the music respire. Dynamics are extreme, the fortissimos jagged and violent, the emphasis on percussiveness. Technically, no question, this is a stunning, visceral reading, hyper-energy and maximum impact at a premium. Musically, though, it's not especially beautiful, the short-winded phrasing and unmitigated relentlessness of attack, not a comma in sight, proving cumulatively draining and emotionally wearying. Please, one wants to ask, what precisely is the structure of the piece, where are we going, what's the plot? If, as Miaskovsky claimed, “Petrushka is life itself”, then the belligerence and wrath Melnikov conjures doesn't make for an appealing prospect.