SCHENECTADY — Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov made his debut Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the Union College Concert Series in a tour-de-force program that would have staggered a lesser pianist.
He began with Rachmaninoff’s “Chopin Variations, Op. 22” (1902-03), a work of such difficulty that Melnikov has only recently learned it. This performance was one of the first times he’s played it in public. Although the work is based on the first eight bars of a slow Chopin Prelude, many of the 22 variations are non-stop and are to be taken at lightning speed with waterfalls of notes. Others had big bold chordal statements, while some had such delicacy that they were like elves dancing.
Melnikov sat very straight and played with a seemingly effortless technique of great clarity, fluidity and brilliance. His tone was big and rich, his phrasing especially in the more delicate passages was beautifully nuanced, very sensitive and musical. His pedaling was spare. Dynamics had great variety. Now and then, he’d hold a chord with his pedal while he wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
The near-capacity crowd seemed overwhelmed by what they’d just heard because as spectacular as Melnikov was, he has not lived with this piece long. He drove through it with great virtuosic force but only a little pacing. That awareness became evident as soon as he began Rachmaninoff’s “Corelli Variations, Op. 42” (1931). This he’s recorded and even his posture relaxed as he began to play.
Based on the sweet short tune “La Folia,” Rachmaninoff used a lighter touch, a puckish humor, drier articulations, and fewer big chordal passages throughout the 20 challenging variations. Melnikov played them all with great charm and pacing and even rewarded the audience with a small smile on conclusion.
He was totally in his element with Debussy’s “Preludes, Book II” (1912-13), which he’s also recorded and soon to be released. The twelve sections each had titles that described the music. They ranged over a wide scope: hauntingly mysterious, saucy, pastoral, Spanish vigor, melancholy or splashy and vivid. Melnikov explored each in depth with style, wit, some gentle showmanship, and superb control of the dynamic ranges and subtle nuances, which are extremely demanding.
The crowd leaped to its feet with cheers, but there was no encore this time.
The next series concert is with pianist Eric Liu, a 19-year old Curtis Institute student, on Feb. 12. Admission is free.