Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 1; No. 2. Scherzo in e?,
Alexander Melnikov (pn)
HARMONIA MUNDI 902086 (69:23)
It’s the Russians vs. the Germans—again. It looks as if Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov (b.1973) is challenging German pianist Hardy Rittner (b.1981) to a Brahms duel on his own territory, their weapons of choice, Brahms-period Bösendorfers. In
32:5, I gave very high marks to Rittner for his Brahms
sonatas (Nos. 1 and 3) performed on an 1849–50 Ignaz Bösendorfer piano. On an earlier volume, reviewed in 32:1, he played the Sonata No. 2 on an 1851 Johann Baptist Streicher. On the present recording, Melnikov ups the ante with a later-model Bösendorfer built in 1875 by Ignaz’s son Ludwig.
One could say that Rittner’s choice of instruments is closer to the actual composition dates of these sonatas, 1853, but 1875 is still well within Brahms’s lifetime; and from everything we know of the composer’s preference in pianos—he requested a Steinway for the first performance of his Second Concerto in 1881—we can be certain that he welcomed the evolving technology and ever-increasing capabilities of the newer instruments coming to market in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Oddly, Melnikov, who chose the piano himself for this recording—I assume no one held a gun to his head—has authored a booklet essay on the subject of pianos in Brahms’s day, in which he criticizes the instrument’s shortcomings: “The Viennese action does not scale up well. In the case of the instrument presented on this recording, the well-known advantages of this type of piano (immediacy of attack, agility of articulation, and registral differentiation) are all very much in evidence; however, the instrument is notoriously difficult to play and to regulate.” Somehow, “agility of articulation” and “difficult to play” seem a bit contradictory. The piano doesn’t play itself. So doesn’t “agility of articulation” sort of suggest the opposite of “difficult to play?” In any case, Melnikov concludes by saying, “It seems to me that these shortcomings are compensated by the beauty and nobility of its sound.” That part I can tell you he got right.
If Melnikov had any difficulty playing or regulating his Bösendorfer, you’d never know it from these performances. The opening of the F?-Minor Sonata, which comes first on the disc, is one of the most startling, stupefying sounds you will ever hear coming from your speakers. It really set me back for a moment with its huge, ringing tone. This was no bell; it was the whole carillon.
By the 1850s, Streicher was yesterday. The only other piano manufacturer seriously competitive with Bösendorfer and Steinway in the last quarter of the 19th century was probably the Boston firm of Chickering & Sons. The company’s introduction of a one-piece, cast-iron plate to support the greater string tension of the larger grand pianos appealed to Liszt. A recital played by Dag Achatz on Liszt’s c.1880 Chickering can be heard on a BIS CD (244). I mention this only to emphasize the degree to which the pianos of Brahms’s day, especially in the last 20 years or so of his life, had reached a state very close to our own modern instruments.
Much as I praised Rittner’s Brahms, I regret to say that it pales in comparison to Melnikov’s. This match between the German and the Russian is no contest; the Russian wins in a knock-out. Forget Melnikov’s consummate technical mastery; that’s a given. Beyond it is playing of such dramatic and dynamic sweep, and such poignant emotional subtlety, it’s guaranteed to convert even the most obstinate Brahms resister. And after all of the encomiums I can heap upon it, I’m still left wordless to express the thunderous power and whispering
Melnikov draws from this instrument and that Harmonia Mundi has captured on this recording. This may just be the most astonishing piano sound captured on record, ever. For sure, it’s the best piano recording I’ve heard in eons. You will be missing an extraordinary experience if you don’t acquire this release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano no 1 in C major, Op. 1 by Johannes Brahms
Alexander Melnikov (Piano)
Written: 1852-1853; Germany
Sonata for Piano no 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2 by Johannes Brahms
Alexander Melnikov (Piano)
Written: 1852; Germany
Scherzo for Piano in E flat minor, Op. 4 by Johannes Brahms
Alexander Melnikov (Piano)
Written: 1851; Germany
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
wow January 1, 2012
By D. Mount (Chestnut Hill, MA) See All My Reviews
"This is an eye-opener. From an addicted collector, the lesson is to mine all the works of your favorite composers and you'll occasionally find gold. As a violinist, I had previously only heard Sonata #1. But since buying this CD I've compared it to multiple versions, including Sviatoslav Richter's Decca recordings of #1&2 (available online). And boy, does this stack up well - I'll take Melnikov over Richter. Pity that Gilels never recorded these sonatas.... Um, why do more pianists not record these works??? The Op.2 sonata got me at the first hello. The Trio of the 3rd movement has to be one of Brahms's most aching creations. For reasons outlined in the liner notes, Alex decided to use an ancient, creaking Bosendorfer for this recording. I keep expecting Tom Waits to burst into song as I listen, but the sound does grow on you. No doubt this'll be "Big in Japan"...."