Arnhem, 21 March 2014
When I wanted to ask Alexander Melnikov for an interview, something unexpected happened. I asked him whether it would be possible to speak to him the next month (April 2014), but that proved not possible. He then suggested: “We can do it right now!”. That was something I was not prepared for, but then again, this was not an offer I should refuse and… I knew that I wanted to ask him about period instruments, his encounters with Andreas Staier and the legendary Sviatoslav Richter. I was very glad to be offered this possibility and once again, I heard so many fascinating stories from this gifted and modest pianist!
Willem Boone (WB): You said in an interview the other day that you liked to play Mozart on a period instrument, yet you played his Jeunehomme Concerto on a modern Steinway tonight, isn’t it difficult to use such different instruments?
Alexander Melnikov (AM): It’s tricky sometimes. I learnt the Jeunehomme Concerto on a period instrument, about one year ago. There are some difficult fingerings differences in this particular case, which I struggle with. Otherwise (as long as I don’t play on an early five-octave piano which requires “playing in”), I have no physical problems switching between the different instruments. Some people say I try to imitate the pianoforte on the Steinway, but I don’t do that on purpose.
WB: At the end of the second movement in the little cadenza you reminded me indeed of a period instrument!
AM: Yes, I did it on purpose there! The richness of the bases disturbs me on a Steinway. There are so many overtones, but there is not much you can do about it. I don’t put the piano in front with the lid open when I play without a conductor, like tonight, especially with Mozart or other pieces up to say 1830s.
WB: I know you worked with Andreas Staier, what did you learn from him?
AM: I met him when I went to his master class in Italy. I played many different composers for him. I was quite influenced by him. What impressed me most was his agility and his incredible knowledge of style and all the historical and cultural contexts both horizontally and vertically… which enables him to play more freely, more daringly. He made two recordings of Mozart sonatas and they were an incredible shock, in a positive way. I keep learning so much from him and not only about Mozart.
WB: Another very important influence in your career was Sviatoslav Richter, how did you get to know him?
AM: My mother was a close friend of Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman, who played with Richter a lot. She got to know him and they became close friends. In 1986 she accompanied him during through Siberia (on his way to Japan), during which he also played in a lot of small and big places. She wrote a book about him. He was curious about me and he heard a few amateurish recordings of mine. He then wanted me to play for him. In 1993, he invited me to play all the Grieg sonatas, i.e. the piano sonata , cello sonata and the three violin sonatas. I remember I was afraid like hell. He gave me a few lessons and later, I turned pages for him during a Spanish tour and also in Moscow.
WB: When was that?
AM: The Spanish tour was in the early nineties, he played Haydn Variations in F minor, Beethoven opus 109 and 110 and Scriabin, it was partially the same programme as the one he played in Utrecht.
WB: That was with Chopin and Scriabin…
AM: Yes, I was there too to turn pages and also in Amsterdam in October 1992, when he played five Beethoven sonatas.
WB: I attended that concert! How were the lessons you took with him?
AM: It’s difficult to say. He was very much to the point and extremely precise. Other than that, I can’t really describe without going into details. If you trust someone completely, the things he says automatically become true, you take them for granted.. He had a clear idea about Grieg, he liked his music. You can read some very poetic descriptions in the Diaries published by Monsaingeon..
I had a similar feeling with someone else I trust so much, Mikhail Pletniev. I was his soloist when he conducted the Russian National Orchestra and Tokyo Philharmonic. He once spent almost an entire day in the backstage room in Ravenna with me.. played something for me, I played something for him, it lasted some hours. I learnt more from him than I have learnt in previous years. Staier, Alexei Lubimov and he are the pianists who influenced me most.
WB: Would you call Pletniev a genius?
AM: O yes, big time! (smiles), if some should be called a genius, it’s Pletniev!
WB: I remember an amazing story that he recorded Tschaikofsky’s Second Concerto in one take!
AM: That’s what he does, the same happened when he recorded Rachmaninov and Prokofiev Third Concertos with Rostropovitsj!
WB: He stopped playing the piano for about six years, why was that?
AM: I don’t have the right to talk about it. The most important thing though is that he plays again..
WB: Just back to Richter, when you turned pages for him, were you attentive to what he did? Could you appreciate his artistry?
AM: Yes, he was hypnotic. You sensed his incredible energy, if you were so close, it worked even stronger. Just the first movement of opus 110 by Beethoven (walks to the piano and demonstrates a few passages), I was blown away by such magnitude and thought: “This can’t be true!”. It was the same during the entire concert, sometimes I could barely turn the pages.. I remember that he was very happy after one of these concerts.. He always said: “I just do what is written in the score”, but I think that is nonsense! Even though he meticulously followed the score, I don’t think at all that his playing was just “objective”, there is no such thing. Take the first movement of the last Schubert G-major sonata for instance: such tempo wouldn’t make sense with any other pianist! Even at his “less successful” concerts when he was already ill at the end I couldn’t care about his mistakes, since there was so much “information” in EACH NOTE he played. Cortot also made mistakes..
WB: Would he still get away with such mistakes nowadays?
AM: Probably not, but there are not many pianists who play like him!
WB: What was the last concert by Richter you heard?
AM: It was in Santander at the end of 1994 I believe, when he played an all Bach programme.
WB: Was he still in good shape?
AM: For my ears, he was always in good shape! Let me tell you another story of someone in “good shape”. In December 2012, I was in Moscow. It was announced that Pletniev would play for the first time at a closed concert after all these years., but I made sure I went of course. He played Bach’s Concerto in D minor BWV 1052 and the Haydn D major concerto. The Bach was perfect, although it’s not the music like to hear on a modern piano. The Haydn was very special too. Then he said: “I am asked to play a bit more, but you are all free to go” and he played the complete 24 Preludes by Scriabin and Chopin’s C sharp Nocturne as an encore. I remember Lugansky was there too. It was fantastic, unbelievable, it felt like we heard Rachmaninov on a good day. What Nikolai told me was very true: with Rachmaninov, Gilels, Richter, Michelangeli, one could always hear if it was an especially good day or not, but with Pletniev it is just ideal. Imagine the nerve it takes to play like this after a six year break.. Speaking of being in shape! (thinks and then he says: “This interview is very good, because I can speak about all the people I like!”)
WB: Didn’t Pletniev play the piano at all during those years?
AM: I know he played the piano in private, because I heard him do something amazing in Tokyo: he performed Chopin’s B flat sonata in the key of B minor and he did it the other way around with the B-minor sonata….
WB: There is another stunning story about him: he apparently heard Pogorelich play a Scarlatti sonata on the radio, one he didn’t know and a few days later, he played that sonata as an encore without having seen the score,…..
AM: I can imagine he did… he is not untalented!
WB: Would you be able to do such things?
AM: No, I absolutely wouldn’t. Pletniev is definitely one of the pianists who impressed me the most in a live performance. The other two I would mention today are Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu. Of course, there are many other fantastic pianists, but the world would be much poorer without these three…
WB: I don’t think I could ever do an interview with Pletniev like I do with you now?
AM: No, he is not an easy person..
WB: It was said about Richter that he was never satisfied about himself…
AM: No, that is not true, I have seen him being happy several times. He wouldn’t say “It worked” but he was not an unhappy man in general, he had moments of both happiness and depression.. I prefer to be like him, since I am always in a bad mood…
WB: Even after a concert?
AM: It always requires somebody else to make me happy, like tonight. I was happy to make music with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.
WB: Doesn’t music make you happy?
AM: How can it not? However, my life is hectic: I play all the time, the last two months I travelled twice to America, playing far too much repertoire.. Music is like an escape, since I don’t like the world today, and you have a big problem if you don’t feel happy after the last movement of the Jeunehomme concerto!