“If the piano has dictated the music, it is piano music”

Stravinsky’s statement on the distinction between piano music and music for the piano seems particularly appropriate to this fascinating and unexpectedly rewarding concert by Alexander Melnikov of well-known works by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky, all familiar and popular components of a standard concert programme.

Alexander Melnikov © Marco Borggreve
Alexander Melnikov
© Marco Borggreve

But a glance at the stage, as one always does when entering the concert hall, signalled the evening’s more unusual approach. Not one but three pianos graced the Wigmore’s small stage – two very pretty “vintage” instruments (the facsimile of an 1824 Viennese Graf fortepiano and an 1837 Parisian Érard) with the hall’s resident Steinway Model D stretched across the back, like a gleaming black limousine primed to transport the listener. It promised to be an intriguing evening.

At the pre-concert talk, hosted by Clemency Burton-Hill, Alexander Melnikov was careful to explain that this was not going to be some fanciful “Historically Informed Performance” (HIP) where the old pianos would “transport” us back to a Viennese Schubertiade or Chopin’s Parisian salon. It is not possible to know how these instruments sounded to composers like Schubert, Chopin or Liszt, and thus HIP is possible only to “a very limited extent”. Melnikov is a big fan of historic pianos,  but is more interested in exploring how the instrument informed and guided the composer, and how the composer responded to the piano technology available at the time. Playing these old pianos, many of which are very delicate and require a different touch from the “pounding” that a modern piano can take, offers special insights into compositional details such as articulation, tempo, dynamics (the double escapement mechanism pioneered by Érard, for example, enabled the pianist to achieve very fine pianissimo playing), use of the pedal, touch and key release, musical semantics and aesthetics. We are so used to hearing the great works in the repertoire played on a modern grand piano (usually a Steinway), whose sound is far more homogenised and even across the entire register, that it is easy to forget that the style and the soundworld of piano pieces written prior to the 1850s are intrinsically linked to the instruments.

Opening with Schubert’s evergreen, rollicking “Wanderer Fantasy”, Melnikov indicated from the outset that this was not going to be a dry academic presentation of this wonderful music. Usually treated as a four-movement piano sonata in all but name, here Melnikov capitalised on the fantasy elements of the music, in particular through the use of rubato. There was much wit in his playing too, often highlighted through the resonant bass of the Graf fortepiano, which at times had the voice of an energetic bassoon. The range of colours the instrument offered was delightful and the immediacy of its sound, due to a much shorter sound decay than that of a modern piano, gave clarity and meaning to every note.

The advance in piano technology in the space of just 13 years was very evident in the sound of the Érard, with its bigger, more resonant voice and longer sound decay. Yet it still retained much of the clarity of the Graf, and the boomy bass and tinkling upper treble. Once again, the instrument’s sound made one more aware than usual of details within the music – all details which held meaning and intent for Chopin: interior architecture and textures, piquant harmonies, the contrast between a lyrical melodic line and agile accompaniment, rapid passagework. If some of the up-tempo Études seemed a little rushed, one could still revel in the colourful sound palette and appreciate the delicacy at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum. It takes courage and skill to play these old instruments – they do not respond in the way a modern piano does. It was also gratifying to find these vintage instruments could create a full sound which filled the Wigmore: in no way did they sound underpowered. This was even more obvious in Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, a work of glittering virtuosity and musical wit, which Melnikov handled with understated panache, also played on the Érard.

Finally the Steinway D, that familiar icon of the modern piano concert, had its moment – and what a moment it was in Stravinsky’s rambunctious Petrushka. The full sound of this instrument (which Melnikov feels is actually too big for a hall the size of the Wigmore) came as a surprise after the voices of the Graf and the Érard, yet it was clear from the writing that Stravinsky fully utilised and understood the technology available to him (a Stravinsky-era Steinway is very similar to its modern-day counterpart). But I felt too that Melnikov drew experience from the earlier instruments, in particular in his crisp articulation, sparkling touch, and restrained pedal. It was a magnificent performance to close this fascinating exploration of familiar repertoire through the medium of different pianos and how the composers responded to them.

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