The Harrowing Heroism of Alexander Melnikov

A group of people sitting in a room with a piano Description automatically generated

Alexander Melnikov prepares to begin his recital “Fantasy from Bach to Schnittke” at Cornell University on February 20th. Photo: David Yearsley.

Alexander Melnikov arrived in Ithaca, New York last Saturday for two recitals—the first on Sunday, the second on Tuesday—using a total of four different pianos and a harpsichord to boot. The plentitude of instruments represented a fraction of the holdings of the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards (CCHK), which sponsored his visit. Melnikov told his audience that he felt like a kid in a candy store.

A Russian now living in Germany, Melnikov’s repertoire knows no borders. During the pandemic he trained to be a commercial airline pilot. His music-making takes him across time and space far quicker than the planes that transported him from the other side of the USA where he was playing Prokofiev and, after Upstate, will deposit him in Atlanta for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which the Georgians (the American ones, not their namesakes on the Black Sea) are promoting as the “Everest” of the genre. Given his expansive repertoire and jet-propelled technical prowess, not to mention (at least not yet), the infinite finesse and expressivity of his playing conveyed both in cozy 200-seat venues like that at Cornell and in enormous symphony halls like that he’ll soon perform in in Atlanta, Melnikov appears indefatigable and fearless. Off-stage he admits to being both fatigued and fearful.

A few hours of winter had blown into disquietingly mild Upstate New York along with the much-anticipated musical traveler: “You don’t know how overjoyed I am to see snow,” he said in flat tones that might have belied his enthusiasm. Melnikov rarely smiles but once you get to know him, you get good at detecting the enlivening wit in his misleadingly deadpan voice even when it’s bemoaning the dire state of the world or musing on the endearing quirks of old pianos.

Like most reasonable people (not that this towering virtuoso and musical searcher plays reasonably; he’s far too brilliant and imaginative for that), Melnikov is doubtful about the prospects for his race’s—the human one’s—survival. Navalny had been murdered the day before he arrived. Melnikov said he cried most of Saturday. The snow was gone before Melnikov left Ithaca yesterday afternoon.

On his opening recital on Sunday night Melnikov played just one piano—a copy made by Paul McNulty of a Viennese instrument from 1805 by Anton Walter who also made an instrument for Mozart. This single instrument was a self-sufficient tool for time travel to three sonatas (Clementi, Haydn and Mozart) each introduced by a Preludio by Muzio Clementi: one alla Mozart, one alla Haydn, and one alla Clementi himself. Clementi called these sketches Musical Characteristics and they purport to pay tribute, if sometimes archly, to his contemporaries. Even while the brushstrokes painted on this one elegant piano were vivid and dynamic, these two portraits and one self-portrait ended up sounding like the painter himself—Melnikov portraying Clementi portraying Mozart. And that is just as it should be.

Flinging open the doors to that candy store, Tuesday evening’s concert presented six fantasies on five different keyboard instruments, the program proceeding chronologically from the first half of the eighteenth century to the second half of the twentieth. Melnikov had planned to be even more comprehensive, presenting a slightly shorter version of his recent recording on the excellent harmonia mundi label, “Fantasie”: seven fantasies by seven composers on seven instruments like those that the composer-performers first played them on.

A full program of fantasies demands much of the listener and even more of the performer. But with these Cornell keyboard resources to hand, Melnikov served up these ruminations and ravings with kaleidoscopic specificity. The German word for these grand pianos describes them by their shape: wing (Flügel). After each piece, the would-be pilot got up and walked to the next piano at whose controls he flew across the centuries and over their sonic landscapes.

But as any traveler knows, flight plans often have to be changed. Because the CCHK still does not have adequate space to house its entire collection, a Pleyel grand of the mid-nineteenth century wasn’t sledged across the still snowy wastes of the campus to the concert hall.

The Pleyel a no-show, Mendelssohn and Chopin fantasies meant to get us from Mozart to Scriabin had to be jettisoned. In their place, Schubert’s daunting Wanderer Fantasy was calmly called up from Melnikov’s vast reportorial reserves.

For this first piece of the second half of Tuesday night’s concert, Melnikov had moved to center stage and to an original piano by Conrad Graf like the one owned by Schubert; Cornell’s instrument was built in 1825, three years before the composer’s untimely death. A short distance into Schubert’s twenty-minute epic the soft pedal on the antique piano came loose. Like a mechanic on pit row, CCHK’s expert piano technician, Scott Hankens, hopped up from the audience, pulled out the keyboard action from the sumptuously veneered case and made the quick fix to a chorus of applause.

Melnikov asked the audience for permission to start the Schubert over, and off he went, hitting his wandering stride again in the work’s self-assured opening motto that surveys the musical landscape as if from a high ridge. Soon though, Melnikov the adventurer took us into the fog, with unseen ravines and boulders all around, the pianist speeding through the shifting terrain as if pursued by doubts and demons, then slowing to listen out for the ravishing melodies calling from the mists. At a promontory encountered late in the piece, a menacing fugue breaks out, its craggy subject declared in stentorian octaves in each hand as if the narrator/pianist/composer is trying to convince himself of his own courage even as the terror closes in on him. As so often in his two Cornell programs, Melnikov proved himself a master of contradiction, simultaneously heroic and harrowing.

The evening’s journey began, as it had to, with J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue played at a harpsichord by Barbara and Thomas Wolf after an instrument made by Jacques Germain in 1785 in Paris—when Thomas Jefferson lived in the city. Bach’s is the monument around which all subsequent efforts at fantasy pace and mutter, looking up at the obelisk, and then trying to look past it, listen past it.

But it is impossible to get out from under the sharp, occasionally chipped edges of its shadow. Bach’s Fantasy bolts to life with whirring passage work, electrifying in Melnikov’s hair-raising rendition. He then captured the lightning in a bottle in the labyrinthine harmonies that roll up and down the keyboard before delivering a soliloquy whose meaning remains inscrutable. The unique creation amounts to a curated display of Bach improvising at his keyboard.

The fragmented, disorienting chromatic fugue subject that follows the fantasy should promise to bring order to the sublime chaos. But the theme cannot find its proper key as it goes slithering upward to the wrong destination then stumbles downward to try again before at last wending itself back to the tonic note of D. The second contrapuntal voice (the answer) begins on that same D but enters against a C—an outlandish, dissonant clash and brazen violation of compositional rules. Melnikov embraced the fugue’s restive ambiguity with his legato chromaticism and phrasing that parsed the theme’s seemingly discreet elements. The result was an internal contest between madness and genius. Intermittently he let the sun illuminate these obscure experiments by playing episodes of comfortingly predictable harmonic sequences with unselfconscious clarity. The monument teetered against the gusts of mad genius.

The next number kept things in the family. The sprawling Fantasy in F-sharp Minor by Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, is an autobiographical confrontation with mortality; one version of the piece is entitled “CPE Bachs Empfindungen [Feelings].” The pulsing minor chords that open the piece and sound continually throughout might be heard to play on the cords of the nerves then being investigated by medical science. The most tuneful motive—plaintive, elegiac—is taken from one of his songs, “Who knows how close death is to me?” Emerging from a spasm of figuration, the ghostly melody returns, hesitantly, at the close before arriving at a low, brooding minor chord that is quickly let go of into the final, enduring silence notated as a nearly a full bar of rests. The antic speed of Melnikov’s passagework made the ultimate quiet of the death song, given intense emotional gradations by the pianist, all the more devastating.

Melnikov stayed at the McNulty/Walter for Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor. The piece starts in those shadows with those octaves later repurposed by Schubert, strays occasionally into patches of light, before returning to darkness that is illuminated at the last moment by a final bolt of lightning—a rising C-minor scale hurled from the keyboard by Melnikov.

Following the Schubert, the last two works were played on a pair of Steinways made half a century apart, but far more alike than the Graf and the Walter separated by just two decades. As Melnikov progressed forward in time he moved back on the stage, paradoxically receding into the present. The keyboard ancestors, their lids now closed, listening mutely along with the audience to the pianist as he continued determinedly on his fantastical itinerary. When Melnikov goes from the old brown pianos to the big modern black ones, his infinite control and ability to play at levels barely above the audible lingers like the faintest echo of the drawing room keyboardist in the modern concert hall.

Scriabin’s Fantasy in B Minor might be considered by some to be more rhapsodic, less prone to blatant disruption than the previous items on the program, though all of the works heard on Tuesday are by definition idiosyncratic. Even if the Scriabin was more lush than the other fantasies, its restless Romanticism seemed like a return. Closing the program, Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue from 1965 topples the Bachian monument—building blocks disassembled by gravity and time. Melnikov wondered with us at the beauty in the bleakness.

The decibel range on these modern pianos is far greater than on the antiques though no more expressive. Melnikov meted out Schnittke’s sledgehammer clusters and coaxed the faintest whispers from the giant Steinway, made in 1960, five years before the piece he played on it. Melnikov told the audience that he wasn’t sure whether they would enjoy the Schnittke’s militantly anti-melodic work. Melnikov speaks English perfectly and persuasively, and he knows that enjoyment is not the right word. I was awed, unsettled, deeply moved. We had indeed covered a long distance in those ninety minutes and more. Whether we’d come home with him, or that much nearer to the end, or to both at once, I cannot say.

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com