“Enigmatic” is the word usually applied to Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op.28. They vary in length from half a minute to nearly six. They range in difficulty from the easiest to some of the hardest pieces that Chopin ever published. Even the name is confusing – preludes to what? – since many of these are the most complete, perfectly formed individual works in the history of the piano. Chopin himself never played more than a few at a time, but modern pianists think differently, and Alexander Melnikov offered the full set as the first half of last night’s recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Alexander Melnikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov
© Marco Borggreve
Seated at the keyboard, Melnikov is the least flamboyant of performers – a sort of antithesis of Lang Lang. The only hint of visible emotion is his body position, which sways on occasion from head back staring into the beyond to bent double, with his forehead nearly touching the keys. Melnikov lets his fingers and the instrument produce the emotion: he can get more out of a single note and the surrounding space than I have commonly heard.

While Chopin’s Etudes are the artistic elevation of the study of various technical aspects of the piano, the Preludes strike me as a study of how a piano can create the full range of possible emotions. It’s as if Chopin were to ask you what mood you were in: whatever your answer, one of these pieces sums it up in the clearest and most concise manner. But it takes a pianist like Melnikov (or, we assume, Chopin himself) to bring these to the fore. No. 4 in E minor may be a beginner’s piece in terms of getting the notes out, but Melnikov invested it with untold depths of contemplation; he showed excellent dynamic control to invest no.6 in B minor with excruciating heartache. No. 23 glistened like a peal of bells, no. 8 in F sharp minor lived up fully to its marking of “molto agitato”. But Melnikov was at his most impressive in the violent, fiery numbers: nos. 16 and 22 showed his total mastery of the difficult art of making a slow implied melody shine through powerful, rapid cascades of notes. No. 12 in G sharp major brought us to the half way mark with a real sense of adventure, while he produced a thick, rich texture in no. 24 in D minor to lead us to the most imposing of final notes. “Punto e basta,” as they say in Italian: “Full stop and enough”.

No Chopin performance is perfect for anyone who knows the music well: there are so many possible choices of tempo, phrasing and the use of rubato that every listener will hear moments that seem to jar with a sense of “that’s not how this music should go.” And inevitably, there were points where Melnikov’s performance had that effect on me – a tempo too leaden here, a melodic note too loud for its accompaniment there. But there were also moments of revelation, such as the pedal note in no. 15 which made me understand the marking Sostenuto as never before. This is a very fine pianist.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Scriabin. Assured and impressive as Melnikov’s performance was, I confess to mixed feelings about the music. On the plus side, it was obvious from the opening Fantaisie that Scriabin certainly reached well beyond Chopin in the range of texture and dynamic contrasts that the piano can achieve, and his complex use of harmony makes longer pieces possible. But I found it difficult to sustain interest in the longer pieces. The opening of the Piano Sonata no. 3, for example, fully lived up to its drammatico marking: the big theme which opens and closes the movement was splendidly imposing, as were the waves of sound immediately before the recapitulation. But in between is a cantabile section and development which I find rather meandering, and Melnikov was unable to persuade me away from that view – but then he generated a gorgeously lush texture in the third movement and real excitement in the fourth. The first of Scriabin’s Deux poèmes was one of the rare moments in the concert where I wasn’t convinced by Melnikov's choice of balance, with the occasional too-loud note spoiling the piece’s delicacy. He was on more secure ground in the second with its joyful exposition and clever diminuendo ending. The “fier, belliqueux” Prelude no. 5 brought this concert to a heart-thumping close – at least temporarily, before we were treated to a generously long encore in the shape of Scriabin’s Sonata no. 9.