Alexander Melnikov, Wigmore Hall, London
Robert Holl, Wigmore Hall, London

A pianist propelled to stardom and a singer at the height of his powers prove experience will out

At the age of 37, Alexander Melnikov seems bemused by his status as the next big thing.

Few pianists are suddenly propelled to a higher level 20 years into their career, least of all on the back of a recording of an introspective and seldom-played cycle of works. But Melnikov's disc of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues has changed the way people speak his name at the Wigmore Hall. Once casually dropped into conversation, more often as chamber musician than soloist, Melnikov is now pronounced sotto voce.

With success comes scrutiny, an audience eager to hear the first 12 Preludes and Fugues in concert, and perhaps too much self-awareness to allow Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy to breathe. The temperamental opposite of Shostakovich's miniatures, the work needs to idle and ruminate between its explosions of defiance and despair, to be reimagined, porous. Pyrotechnics are under Melnikov's fingers but not in his soul, or not on this occasion. In the fast movements, his energies were directed towards taming the over-bright shine of the piano, and only in the moss-green ripples of the Adagio did it gleam. Brahms's late Sieben Fantasien were a better fit, the sensual cross-rhythms beautifully delineated, the sighing, rising semitones subtly pointed, the furtive chromatics of the penultimate and final poems unforced.

Titles can be misleading. Brahms's Fantasien are closer to Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues than they are to the reckless tumult of Schubert's Fantasy. Though the personal situations of Brahms and Shostakovich could not have been more different – one comfortable in semi-retirement, the other under constant threat of censure or annihilation – neither set of miniatures was written to impress. Both are a sequence of private dialogues with musical form, and in the lunar beauty of the C major Prelude Melnikov finally relaxed. This was Bach translated and fêted, sometimes in the briefest inversion of a familiar figure, sometimes in a sharp flash of Vermeer yellow, the bold double-dots of French style, an Italianate hail-storm of arpeggios, the last Amen in a stern fugue. Delicately coloured, crisply voiced and understated, here at last was playing to merit that bemusing, intimidating sotto voce.

Bass-baritone Robert Holl, has past the age Brahms declared his intention to stop composing. He's a great bear of a man, with a face and voice that could have been hewn from oak, thrown into a stormy sea for several decades, then washed up on a stony, unbeautiful beach. His hands are great paws, sometimes reaching into the air as he sings, as though to feel a consonant between fingers and thumb, sometimes swaying heavily at his sides. He looks like Wagner's Wanderer. But on Wednesday night, with Andras Schiff at the keyboard of the elder of the Wigmore Hall's two Steinways, he was Schubert's.

This was a Winterreise of unparalleled depth and complexity, extraordinary in the immediacy of the text, a terrible and harrowing duet. In Holl, we had the pariah, the vagrant, the outcast: the man who understands from experience the lines "Was soll ich länger weilen/Dass man mich trieb hinaus?" (Why should I wait any longer for them to drive me out?). This was no disillusioned boy. This was a man who'd had bricks and bottles thrown at him, who would not rest in the graveyard but would continue walking past the hurdy-gurdy player, his sores still burning. Schiff's reading of the piano part was pitilessly beautiful in the magic-hour light of "Der Lindenbaum", more watchful and daring in timbre, voicing and rhythm than any accompanist I have heard. Seventy minutes passed in what seemed like seconds and yet also seemed like years.

This was without doubt the most remarkable, disturbing Winterreise I have ever experienced.

Next Week:

Anna Picard contemplates mortality when Vladimir Jurowski conducts Christine Brewer and the LPO in Strauss's Four Last Songs

Classical Choice

Director John Fulljames continues his exploration of Janacek's operas with a new production of From the House of the Dead for Opera North, at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, from Thu. Renegade auteur Terry Gilliam makes his ENO debut in a staging of Berlioz's delirious oratorio, The Damnation of Faust, at London's Coliseum, from Fri.

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