Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov made his San Francisco Performances (SFP) debut in November of 2011. He did so with an undertaking so ambitious that many (myself included) numbered it among the most memorable concerts of both the calendar year and the concert season. In a single recital (punctuated by two intermissions) he performed the entirety of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 87 collection of 24 couplings of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys.
Last night in Herbst Theatre Melnikov returned to give his second SFP solo recital. This time he kept to the more conventional duration of approximately two hours, but his program again amounted to an ambitiously demanding undertaking. The first half was divided between two sets of variations composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff and presented in chronological order. The second half consisted entirely of Claude Debussy’s second book of piano preludes. Chronologically, this collection was situated between the two Rachmaninoff compositions; and aesthetically it was definitely in a class by itself.
By the time Rachmaninoff composed the earlier set of variations (begun in 1902 and completed the following year), he was well established as a virtuoso pianist with an international reputation. As a composer he had established himself with his Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, which was first performed in its entirety (with Rachmaninoff as soloist) on November 9, 1901. The set of variations was his Opus 22, and it consisted of 22 variations on the C minor prelude from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28, which is probably the best-known prelude from this collection that covers the 24 major and minor keys. By way of context, this same prelude had served as the subject for a set of variations and free-form fugue composed by Ferruccio Busoni in 1884.
The prelude is particularly striking in that it consists of little more than a sequence of chord progressions. However, from his very first variation Rachmaninoff makes it clear that he is more interested in linear motion than in harmonic progressions. It does not take long for his sinuous melodic lines to build up in velocity and texture until the listener is caught up in a torrent of finger-busting passages. The sequence of variations quickly begins to feel more like a salvo, firing away with one burst of of notes pouring from both hands after another, only occasionally letting up a bit, almost as if to allow the pianist to “reload.” If there is any sense of an overall plan, it has been vigorously obscured by the prodigious inventiveness of Rachmaninoff’s capacity for virtuosity. Almost all of that capacity is original, although a faint suggestion of Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Studies” (Opus 13) briefly rears its head.
The second set of variations was composed in Switzerland in 1931. By this time Rachmaninoff had become a “citizen of the world.” He knew that the Bolsheviks would not tolerate his bourgeois background and lifestyle, and his reputation made him welcome in just about every country in the West. The second set of variations was his Opus 42. He thought they were variations on a theme from a violin sonata by Arcangelo Corelli; but that theme was actually the Spanish “Folia,” which Corelli himself had lifted from its original folk context. This set of twenty variations has a bit more of a sense of overall structure, which includes an intermezzo between the thirteenth and fourteenth variations and an extended coda. (Note that similar traits can be found in the pattern of variations in Schumann’s Opus 13.) Nevertheless, virtuosic display again emerges as the composer’s major priority.
As a result Melnikov’s decision to play these two sets of variations back-to-back served at the very least to establish his athletic prowess. Nevertheless, one has to wonder if either of these collections was as unrelenting as Melnikov made them out to be. It is interesting that a few years later (in 1934 again in Switzerland) Rachmaninoff would compose one of his most-performed compositions, his Opus 43 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Through the interacting relationships that emerge between the pianist and the instruments of the orchestra, Opus 43 establishes its overall structure more as a journey visiting a stimulatingly varied series of way stations, thus getting beyond the one-thing-after-another bursts of raw virtuosity that populate the variations in both Opus 22 and Opus 42. This makes one wonder if there was more of an overall architecture to either of those pieces than Melnikov managed to communicate.
One might ask a similar question of overall architecture about the collection of Debussy preludes. Unlike the preludes of Chopin, Debussy’s 24 preludes were not intended as a systematic exploration of the different major and minor keys. Indeed, he wrote them as two books of twelve separated by a couple of years in their composition. In both sets he seemed most interested in the power of music to suggest. What was being suggested? Each piece had its own evocative title; but, in his original manuscripts, Debussy put those titles at the end of each prelude, rather than the beginning. This suggests that he wanted to music to define its own path without first disclosing the destination.
The result is that each individual prelude its a self-contained synthesis of subjective feeling and expressive compositional technique. It is therefore no surprise that Debussy did not expect either book to be played in its entirety from beginning to end. That would be more than could be accommodated by the cognitive capacity of a mere mortal.
These days the titles are printed in the program, so the listener knows what they are before the music starts. Such was the case last night. Furthermore, these are pieces that were probably familiar to many in the audience. Thus, one could appreciate the insights of Melnikov’s own efforts to keep each title in mind while unfolding his thoughts about the music.
Nevertheless, perhaps because there was so much to be gained from those insights, the full set of twelve preludes ran the risk of being too much for mind to accommodate in a “single dose.” It is worth noting that, when local pianist Jeffrey LaDeur presented this same collection at a Noontime Concerts recital this past July, he broke the full set into smaller groups, providing verbal introductions on a group-by-group basis. This compensated for a lack of any sense of journey through the entire collection, while, at the same time, encouraging more focused listening attention.
Given the prodigious breadth of repertoire in his recital, Melnikov wisely decided to keep his encore short and sweet. His only encore was the first (in F-sharp major) of Alexander Scriabin’s two Opus 32 “Poèmes.” This was composed in 1903 before Scriabin had developed the capacity to distill some of his pieces down to haiku-like brevity. However, it is very much an impression of a single moment; and traditional conventions of development give way to simply gazing upon that moment from different points of view. Melnikov’s interpretation of this approach could not have been more sensitive; and, given how much had been served up during the program itself, it could not have been more welcome.