Debussy's Général Lavine, with his bugle calls, cake-walk and badly tuned banjo, wasn't the only thing at Wigmore Hall deserving the descriptor “eccentric” last night. Alexander Melnikov's recital, surveying both books of Préludes, was highly individual, the Russian pianist twisting and pulling Debussy's scores as a child plays with plasticine. He moulded them into new shapes – not always in a good way, but often intriguing, occasionally inspired.
There was an improvisatory air about Melnikov's performance. In a hall dimmed to near darkness, he seemed to wait an age for inspiration to strike, often clasping his chin in his hand until a thought burrowed its way to his fingertips. Head rolled back, he would sometimes gaze up at the Wigmore's gilded cupola as if imploring its Soul of Music to bless his playing. Debussy heads each prelude with just a Roman numeral, encouraging the pianist to interpret the music rather than the subject by not revealing its title until the final bars. Each felt like Melnikov was addressing a blank sheet of paper, responding now with pastels, smudged and clouded by plenty of sustain pedal, then with felt-tipped markers, creating boldly drawn caricatures.
This was a performance of extremes and elastic tempos. The opening two numbers – Danseuses de Delphes and Voiles – were taken daringly slow – the softest of pedalling leading to very sleepy renditions. On the other hand, La fille aux cheveux de lin, one of the dreamiest preludes and beloved of amateur pianists, was rushed, completely losing any sense of reverie.
There was much dynamic extreme too; Melnikov's playing in Des pas sur la neige was so feather-light that his footprints would barely have left any impression on the snow, while the moonlight in La terrasse des audiences du clair du lune was distinctly watery. When he pumped up the volume, Melnikov drew a splintering hardness from the Steinway's upper notes – this was Debussy with a Shostakovich-like glare. The habanera of La puerta del vino was heavy and unsmiling with its demonic triple-forte interventions – Carmen with a Russian accent – and Les collines d'Anacapri was hectic and hectoring rather than playful.
Yet some of the preludes came off very well. The West Wind blew in a flurry of notes and pedalling added plenty of murky darkness to the fog of Brouillards, the first work of Book 2. Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers, deriving from a line in Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens) was delightfully playful. Melnikov did the puckish quirky numbers well, especially the strutting, halting steps in Minstrels. The national anthem really thundered ahead of Debussy's tribute to Dickens' Samuel Pickwick and the rockets and sparklers of Feux d'artifice fizzled brightly but briefly in the final number. Perhaps best of all was La cathédrale engloutie, all the better for being played straight, sonorous, mighty bells sending their chimes rippling beneath the watery surface.
This was Debussy refracted through a Russian lens, fascinating but often heavily distorted. Général Melnikov – eccentric indeed.
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