Fantasie – 7 Composers, 7 Keyboards
Alexander Melnikov (keyboards)
rec. 2022, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Harmonia Mundi HMM902702 
This is the most fun history trip I’ve ever taken. Seven different types of keyboards demonstrated in music from their era. The keyboards are the stars but they only shine so brightly because of the affectionate expertise of Alexander Melnikov. A substantial number of them come from his own personal collection and it shows, as he not only knows every nook and cranny of them but how best to show them off. Each piece has been chosen with immense care to let the listener experience the full range of what each instrument can do. There is no sense of these being obsolete prototypes on the way to a modern concert grand. Each allows Melnikov a special point of entry into the imaginative world of the compositions selected.
This is Melnikov’s second tilt at this sort of thing following his 2018 release, Four Pianos, Four Pieces which contained, amongst other things, the most wonderful Schubert Wanderer Fantasie I’ve yet heard. Appropriately for a time of high inflation, we now get seven instruments though the pieces are mostly shorter.
He kicks things off with Bach and both in terms of instrument used and, regrettably, performance, this account of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue played on a conventional harpsichord is the most ordinary thing on the disc. The Fantasia sounds like a procession of effects rather than coalescing into a satisfying whole. More strangely, given the eruptions of recreative fancy to come, the fugue sounds almost too reverential.
Thankfully, things really get going with an expansive and appropriately slightly bonkers rendition of CPE Bach’s Fantasia in F sharp minor. The remarkable keyboard used here is a tangent piano – the tangent refers to the shape of the hammer head used to strike the string. Think of the pianos in old John Wayne movies and you’ll get some idea of what it sounds like it. Clearly it also has a range of pedal effects used with great delectation and taste by Melnikov. His surefooted handling of this superbly wayward music makes his somewhat shapeless handling of the Bach père Fantasia seem even stranger.
The dawn of the age of the fortepiano takes us through some fine, brooding Mozart to Mendelssohn’s own remarkable F sharp minor Fantasia – a work inspired by the impending trip to Scotland that gave us the Hebrides overture and the Scottish symphony. It is a magnificent craggy and passionate work fully the equal of those two more famous orchestral works. The period keyboard enhances rather than diminishes that grandeur and Melnikov is a superb advocate who clearly knows the strengths and weaknesses of the instrument intimately. He is quite simply dazzling in the fiercely brilliant finale. Melnikov’s recording of Book 2 of the Debussy preludes as part of Harmonia Mundi’s centenary celebrations of the composer’s birthday was ear opening in demonstrating time and again what kind of sound Debussy had in mind, solving myriad little interpretative problems in the process. I had the same feeling listening to this Mendelssohn where a modern grand piano somehow tames the wilder edges of the music and produces a much safer impression of the composer.
Chopin’s F minor Fantasia needs little introduction and we are now in the era of pianos proper – in this case of lusciously mellow Érard from round about 1885. A little late, I would have thought, for Chopin but the sound of it fits the music mostly aptly. The murky atmosphere of the opening of the work is like a green fog crept in from an Edgar Allan Poe story. In the livelier passages it is nice to hear that Steinway is not the only way especially in the noisier sections where the sound world it evokes is much more intimate, more salon than concert hall. Melnikov’s imagination runs at white heat, inspired by the noises he can coax from this piano. Listen to the flight into the ether of the last few bars and marvel!
The craggy, nutty sound of the turn of the twentieth century Bechstein seems an ideal match for the Busoni original, written in his inimitable quirky Bach manner, that is his Fantasia in modo antico. There is a darkness to the timbre that is most effective in these gloomy, gothic evocations of the organ loft. Both this Busoni and the concluding Schnittke playfully feature composers not content with the instruments they are nominally writing for. If Busoni wants his piano to take us to the organ loft then Schnittke’s astonishing Improvisation and Fugue Op38 takes us into the world of the prepared piano and beyond. His ingenuity in evoking a fugue that isn’t technically a fugue but sounds like one is a dazzling way of bringing this recital full circle. It is also a reminder of the puckish playful good spirits that inform the whole enterprise.
Imagine this recital were a lesson to answer questions such as What does a fortepiano sound like? The enthralled pupils would be dying with impatience to get back to Mr Melnikov’s class for the next one.
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV903
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Fantasia in F sharp minor H.300 Wq.67
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Fantasia (Fragment) in C minor K396
Fantasia (Fragment) in D minor K397
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Fantasia in F sharp minor Op28
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Fantasia in F minor Op49
Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924)
Fantasia in Modo Antico Op33b/4
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)
Improvisation and Fugue Op38