LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Prokofiev
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 2, 6 & 8
PERFORMER: Alexander Melnikov (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902202
After his superlative recordings of masterpieces by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, it was only a matter of time before pianist Alexander Melnikov turned the beams of his formidable intelligence and technique on Prokofiev.
What luxury that this is only the first instalment of a sonata cycle, and that it chooses three of the four unquestionable masterpieces of the nine – including two of the greatest piano sonatas ever composed,
Nos 6 and 8. Which means that if Melnikov must come top of a very long list in these works, he is one of the top pianists of our time. For some years Frederic Chiu’s accounts of the complete piano works were my firm favourites, while Boris Giltburg and Dennis Kozhukhin have both had compelling things to say about the later sonatas in recent years. Melnikov’s interpretations, though, are in a class of their own.
Though the Second Piano Sonata of 1912 marks early steps in large-scale mastery, it holds its own as a hobgoblinish preface to two of the three titans that Prokofiev began just before the Second World War. In all three works, Melnikov matches heart and mind with an incredible palette of sounds. The first test, in the Second and Sixth Sonatas, is whether the pianist can articulate the extreme contrast between the respectively restless and pugnacious openings – in the Second, the odd non-legato roll which marks a departure from the Rachmaninov style; in the Sixth, the devilish tritone lurking in the bass, a signature to come in all three of the so-called war sonatas – and the retreat into dreams; I don’t know any pianist who has managed the imaginative leap better.
The development climaxes of the Sixth and Eighth Sonatas’ first movements will bore right through you, thanks to equally stunning engineering by Harmonia Mundi – and special articulation which never muddies the boundaries between one idea and another, but doesn’t overstress them either.
Hesitations in the overall rubato are always instinctively well placed, and pacing is perfect; Andante never means Adagio for Melnikov, which sets him apart from classic Sviatoslav Richter – though his Eighth will always remain a desert island performance for me as the spellbinding introduction to the work. The dynamic range is ideal, too, from the ghost voices and distant bells in the Eighth Sonata to fortissimos that mean serious business. Given perfect clarity of inner lines and a refusal to lose intellectual grip even on the most tornado-like of crescendos, you end up thinking ‘what extraordinary works’ rather than ‘what a great pianist’ – and it doesn’t get better than that. Fingers crossed, then, that Melnikov gives us not just the sonatas but the equally impressive rest of Prokofiev’s extraordinary literature for the piano.