In conversation with celebrated Russian pianist, Alexander Melnikov:
UChicago Presents: When did you first begin playing the piano and why?
Alexander Melnikov: I was six and a half. Why, I do not remember; it was a very long time ago. Maybe motivated by my parents—I think everybody starts like that, no?
I don’t personally believe all those stories about kids who, by the age of three, want to do nothing but play the violin… Music was present in my house, of course, although my parents are not musicians. My older sister was playing, and yeah, I think they brought me to someone and I started to play. The rest is history, as they say.
UCP: Your career was supported by the legendary Sviatoslav Richter. Tell me about the first time you met him.
AM: I wouldn’t say my career was supported by him. He noticed me, but I didn’t really see him often. He was a very good friend of my mother’s, and she accompanied him on some of his tours and wrote some books about it, which are published in many languages. I played for him a couple of times, and he invited me to play at some of his festivals, but that was about it. The most important factor for me in regard to him was that I often got the chance to turn pages for him. Back then, he wasn’t a huge influence on me, but it was so many years ago, and I’ve changed a lot. I absolutely haven’t lost any of my appreciation or respect or anything. He died in ’97, [twenty years ago], and my interactions with him were largely in the last five years of his life.
UCP: What other pianists do you admire, who you feel have had a profound affect on your musical approach?
AM: Well, of course it’s [Richter], then Mikhail Pletnev, then there’s Andreas Staier. Then, for non-living ones, those would be Walter Gieseking and [Vladimir] Sofronitsky. Something like [that]. Those are just the ones who are most impressive to me.
UCP: You also show an early interest in historically informed performance and have performed on the fortepiano, as well as historical pianos, as you did on your recent CD of 19th century French music with Isabelle Faust and the Salagon Quartet. How did that begin?
AM: That began around 1991, when I was 18 years old. It was a combination of things: I heard recordings I liked very much and became very interested in fortepianos, especially, and that interest never faded. I have a rather large collection of instruments, so most of my CDs are played on my own instruments, including that one.
UCP: What kind of possibilities do these instruments allow you to explore?
AM: Just like most other [historical pianos], it’s very pleasant to play on it because it just matches aesthetically. In the case of this 1885 piano, it’s probably because this sound is [closer] to the one in the composer’s head. In the case of the César Franck violin sonata, it’s simply a more rewarding experience because there’s absolutely no balance problems, and if you look at the dynamic markings by the composer, they just make immediate sense. It’s a less twisted experience, somehow.
Having said all that, however, I have to emphasize that this current vogue, or fashion, of playing on all sorts of historical instruments is all wonderful but not at all a remedy and not an answer. It often poses more questions than you had before. But it opens your horizons and makes you think.
UCP: What do you mean by that?
AM: Well, maybe not so much in the case of César Franck or Chausson, but already if you start to think of someone like Beethoven, things start to become really unclear. Basically, as a rule of thumb, the more remote we are from a composer’s time, the more we lose the musical language. At the moment, I’m preparing a recording and concert program of Mozart sonatas for piano and violin, and then it’s really more you trying to inform yourself. Of course, today we have access to so much information it’s really incredible. But we’ll never find any answers.
I strongly believed in their ideals before it was called “authentic performance,” but to be politically correct, you have to say “historically informed performance.” But it’s nothing but a myth, which is very easy to prove because you can listen to recordings made, say, 100 years ago with Hindemith playing viola or Prokofiev playing piano and there, immediately, you see how hopefully fast the musical language changes. Even with something [this recent], we’ve lost it. Then, to say that about something like Beethoven, with a gap of a couple of centuries… It’s all very interesting, and outside the scope of this interview, of course, but the bottom line is that I don’t think we are approaching anything near historical objectivity. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have to try.
UCP: For our program: how were you introduced to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues?
AM: Coming back to Richter, the first four of them I actually played at one of his festivals—he asked me [to play them]. This was back in 1996 or something. Much later, 2010, I decided to record them. So, I learned them for the recording, actually, and started to play them as a cycle.
It’s true that I did become somewhat associated with this work, and to be honest, I don’t like it. It’s somehow like putting you in a certain drawer. Perhaps, nevertheless, I make sure I play them a couple of times a season, just not to lose the ability of playing it. Of course, Chicago is a very important and beautiful town—I enjoyed very much playing there last year in this series—and I actually think it’s a good idea to do it there, because it just feels nice, somehow. …I like to play them as a cycle; I believe it’s a special experience to hear them all in one go.
UCP: I think you already hinted at something I was going to ask you, which is about the fact that BBC Magazine named your recording “one of the 50 greatest recordings of all time”—the most recent recording on the list. How do you take praise like that?
AM: Terribly. It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, of course, it’s flattering in a way; it’s BBC, it’s not ABC! But I mean, one cannot really take it too seriously because there is not one living person who has heard all the recordings. For this alone, it cannot be objective, because maybe the greatest recording of all time is the exact one the critic has not heard.
UCP: In playing these pieces, what do you find particularly rewarding about them? Because, of course, they’re based on the same framework as Bach’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.
AM: I still haven’t lost my passion for this music; I still think it’s one of the greatest piano cycles of the 20th century, if not of all time. I think it’s quite lovely, so I would like people to hear it. And Shostakovich himself made a point of not talking—he’s a very controversial figure, but mostly because people have made him a controversial figure through the ongoing Shostakovich wars, which don’t make any sense. Was he a communist, was he a dissident? He made a point of never talking.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the Preludes and Fugues, because I’ve already talked so much about them in a book for my own CD, which is also available online. But I would like to refrain from talking too much about these pieces and let people at the concert just listen to them. And maybe afterwards, we can talk again! [Laughs]