Broadly speaking, soloists tend to be typecast into a few broad categories: we have the dazzling showmen, the sensitive poets, the historically-informed academics. Then comes a pianist like Alexander Melnikov, who manages to combine all of the above and more. Together with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Melnikov’s performance of Beethoven’s ever-popular Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major was alternately thrilling, moving, and always utterly musical.

Alexander Melnikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov
© Marco Borggreve
Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto is known, above all, for its unprecedented length – at approximately 40 minutes, it is significantly longer than most other concertos of the period. Though Melnikov’s powerful tone left nothing to be desired in terms of grandeur, it was ultimately his intimate, chamber-like approach to the work that made it unique. This was evident from the initial outbursts in the first movement, taking his time to emphasize the harmonic and rhythmic changes within the flourishes. The entire movement was performed with utmost clarity and precision, often bringing out the chromaticism in the lower and middle lines. Though Melnikov’s sound at its loudest is extremely impressive, it was in the softer passages that he made the greatest impact with his impeccable timing and silken tone. What was most notable was in his interaction with the orchestral solos, often turning away from the audience completely to face his musical partners. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra responded accordingly, in spite of Christopher Seaman’s rather prosaic conducting.

The highlight of the evening was the Adagio un poco mosso, played with disarming sensitivity. Rather than highlighting the sweeping romanticism of the movement, Melnikov’s transparent, almost vulnerable sound brought a chamber-like intimacy to the piece. The nearly inaudible transitional passage into the attacca third movement was wonderfully tense, leaving the audience almost breathless with anticipation before the final Rondo. This final movement was perhaps the least successful, dazzling in its precision but missing the wild sense of release the movement needs. In this, he was certainly not aided by Seaman’s conducting, with the orchestra often coming in too late and too loudly. Despite this, Melnikov’s musical integrity made this a treasurable performance overall.

Beethoven’s concerto was paired with Walton’s equally monumental First Symphony, which has undergone a renaissance of late. Written over the course of four years, the first three movements in particular resonate with a somber seriousness that perhaps reflects the economic state of Europe in the 1930s. The opening movement in particular is rather shocking in its brutality, with sardonic brass rudely interrupting the long, tense string lines. Though the winds and brass played with admirable passion, Seaman’s rather spare conducting style failed to inspire the strings, and resulted in a highly unbalanced performance with a particularly thin violin section failing to be audible. This was less a problem in the second movement scherzo, though the overall effect was one of efficiency rather than of the con malizia indication in the score. Best of all was the third movement, surely one of Walton’s most beautiful movements, steadily building from a wistful set of woodwind solos into a shattering climax. Seaman took the movement at a faster-than-usual tempo, which aided in the lyricism and flow of the movement. The final movement was impressive in its grandeur, with particularly impressive stamina from the woodwinds and brass coming at the end of the demanding concert programme. The contrapunctal central section was perhaps messier than it should have been, but the final maestoso was appropriately majestic – though not erasing memories of Melnikov’s Emperor.