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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Préludes - Book 2 (1912-13) [39:15] La Mer (arr. Debussy for piano four-hands) (1905) [24:08]
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Olga Pashchenko (piano: La Mer)
rec. 2016/17, Teldex Studio, Berlin HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902302 [63:23]
Quite apart from being an outstanding player, Alexander Melnikov is a collector of pianos – his previous disc for Harmonia Mundi was the fascinating Four Pieces, Four Pianos (HMM 902229), a recital of Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky with works by the first three played on instruments contemporary with their composition and the Three Movements from Petrushka played on a modern Steinway, effectively a history in sound of the piano’s development over 180 years. On this album however he sticks with just the one, a sublime 1885 Érard.
Melnikov plays the Préludes here with a technician’s precision – I followed with the score and the scrupulous observation of Debussy’s markings is obvious. If that implies this is a dry, literal reading, nothing could be further from the truth. Melnikov is clearly a connoisseur, and he utterly savours this instrument, creating subtle, tiny differences by minute differences in finger pressure or pedal. When I say he merely plays the one instrument, at times it is difficult to reconcile the sounds coming from the top and bottom of the Érard as emanating from the same source, machine or human, such are the kaleidoscopic colours produced. While each of the twelve pieces is exquisitely chiselled and microscopically detailed, Melnikov’s conception of the whole cycle is pleasingly consistent and coherent.
Thus Brouillards’ murky bass chords are permeated by fleeting shafts of iridescent light in the treble – Melnikov’s forensic ear and gossamer touch suggest a tone painter who can conjure hints of rainbows from the gloomy nothingness. The phrases of Feuilles Mortes are delicately differentiated and shaded in such a way as to accentuate its Lent et mélancolique marking. The flamenco strumming at the outset of La puerta del vino has rarely sounded more guitar-like and here in particular the spectrum of local colour Melnikov extracts from his piano is beyond dazzling. I have previously alluded in reviews on this site to my fondness for Lubimov’s ECM (ECM 2241/42 - review) account of both sets of Préludes, but this La puerta renders even his somewhat monochrome by comparison (to be fair to Lubimov he does not have the benefit of the Érard – he uses a perfectly decent Steinway from roughly a quarter of a century later).
As Melnikov’s readings of these Préludes proceed, he quite literally seems to shed new and abundant light on these endlessly fascinating miniatures on this ancient, luminously beautiful instrument. The stars of La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune twinkle and dance – Melnikov builds this so naturally that after a few hearings it becomes difficult to imagine an alternative conception. Its infinite mystery is my highlight of this set – at least it is as I write; I’ve played this disc a lot and each successive hearing yields fresh delights. While I certainly won’t be discarding my Lubimov any time soon, nor Steven Osborne’s compelling recent Hyperion account (CDA 67530) on a modern piano, this new disc is something else. I note that among Harmonia Mundi’s forthcoming ‘Claude Debussy 1918/2018’ issues (identified at the back of the booklet) the estimable Javier Perianes has recorded Book 1 of the Préludes – presumably due for imminent release: while I am certain they will be worth hearing, I do hope that Melnikov will also get an opportunity to record them on his wonderful instrument at some point.
I could babble on ad infinitum about these Préludes – but it’s only half the story of this disc. La Mer is given on the same piano in Debussy’s own arrangement for four hands. Here Melnikov is joined by Olga Pashchenko. This is a revelatory reading – there is such extraordinary synchronicity of touch and conception between these two players that one quite forgets this is essentially an orchestral work. I recently reviewed a version of the piece for single piano on Naxos (8.573576 - review); it’s certainly well played by Ralph van Raat but ultimately Lucien Garban’s sterile arrangement kills it. The thrilling account delivered by the two Russians here inhabits an altogether different universe. Again ones’ ears are astonished by the wealth and depth of sonorities produced simultaneously by a single instrument. For an initial flavour, I recommend that readers try to sample the glistening textures that suffuse the last couple of minutes of the central Jeux de vagues and contrast that with the biting, but never overcooked drama of the opening of the final Dialogue du vent et de la mer. In those four minutes the timbral variety produced by these four hands and this instrument is astounding and I can’t believe that other listeners won’t be similarly impressed. This brief sequence encapsulates this mesmerising, magnificent account of La Mer.
A few months ago I delivered a similarly hyperbolic assessment of Hamelin and Andsnes’ terrific two-piano four-hands Rite of Spring on Hyperion; here are four more hands performing pianistic miracles, but on the same instrument. As we approach the final quarter of the year I find it amazing that two of the (three) truly outstanding discs I have encountered thus far involve four-handed piano arrangements of twentieth century orchestral milestones. In this case the coupling, Melnikov’s exquisitely played Préludes –Book 2 clinches the deal. Moreover Harmonia Mundi’s engineers have managed to capture the complex flavours of his own superb Érard instrument with rare fidelity and tact. This is a shoe-in as one of my discs of the year.