Chausson ideal, Prokofiev not so much


Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday September 26, 2017

                                                                             Markiyan Melnychenko

For their recital in the MRC Salon, the Melnychenkos covered almost as much territory as other duos are happy to handle in a full recital-with-interval.   Well, sort of: the addition of another major work might have exercised this audience’s endurance but not by much because the responses were very warm to all four programmed items.   In fact, the musicians played three repertoire staples as well as a brief curiosity and, for long stretches, any auditor would have been quite happy with the experience.

Markiyan is the violinist in this pairing, Oksana the pianist.   To my mind, the event’s first offering proved to be the most rewarding: Chausson’s Poeme  –  originally with orchestral accompaniment but then arranged by the composer for this combination, with other writers offering improvements as the work achieved its deserved popularity until these times when it has become a staple in every professional player’s repertoire.   The piano’s role, however improved, is subsidiary to the solo string and Markiyan Melnychenko impressed straight away after the sombre introduction with a gripping account of the first solo  –  unaccompanied and not difficult but immediately loaded with character and giving evidence of this player’s admirably firm bowing work.

Even when the score progresses to those rich double-stop bars inspired by the dedicatee Ysaye  –  the Animato at Number 11 in my Breitkopf & Hartel imprint  –  you were treated to a smooth delivery without a hint of scratch or scrape.   Indeed, the violinist’s enunciation proved near-flawless at those moments of exposure and/or peril, like the cadenza that Chausson interpolated early on, and the soaring high-set lines that reach their conclusion in the set of trills starting on a low B flat bringing the Poeme to its muted resolution.   Here was a controlled and metrically disciplined account of a favourite that often suffers  –  just like many similar products of its time and genre  –  from sloppy sentimentality and a devil-may-care attitude to the bar-line.

In comparison, the following Debussy Violin Sonata made a less favourable impact.   It’s a hard piece to get right, particularly in this environment where, to play safe, a pianist might make constant use of the left pedal for fear of manufacturing a glutinous texture or sounding over-prominent.   The opening to the Allegro vivo sounded sprightly enough but the movement’s centre found both artists inflicting heavy treatment on pages that don’t need power.  From the first Meno mosso where the key signature changes to E Major, Debussy is operating in a kind of atmospheric susurrus, a restrained mesh which is meant to sound light and transparent; the effect here was mobile but muddy.

Nor did the Intermede offer much better.   For one thing, it was taken at a pretty fast pace, which suited the violinist but found the pianist working too hard in chordal sequences like bars 29 to 33 or in potentially whimsical passages like the 16 bars before Number 3 in the Durand edition.   This over-emphatic attack also brought an unnecessary tension to the finale where Debussy’s contrapuntal interplay gets quite complex, to the point where you relished the violin’s abrupt unaccompanied flights in 9/16.   Soft passages like the chain that follow the direction au Mouvement initial lacked the expected delicacy, although the players recovered some finesse of attack by the time of that magical Meno mosso move to E Major.

Prokofiev provided the evening’s second half, beginning with the first of the Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102; this is the third suite of piano solo extracts from the ballet and I didn’t know it had been arranged for violin/piano duet.   In this format, the waltz sounded very effective, the string line taking melodic responsibilities but also adding a good deal to the slightly manic impetus  that the composer invested in this scene where the private and public overlap to brilliant if alarming effect.   If for nothing else, the extract gave Markiyan Melnychenko an opportunity to display his gift for urging out long lyrical sweeps of fabric not dependent on a hefty vibrato.

With the Sonata in D Major, co-opted for Oistrakh from the Flute Sonata, the piano contribution again erred on the side of heft and a forceful dynamic.   The partners worked with certainty through the opening Moderato‘s exposition but things took a turn for the hectic during the development, notably when Prokofiev changes his key signature to B flat Major/G minor and the action involves chromatic creep and an increase in linear tension.   It struck me that both performers were again pushing what is a pretty simple work, in terms of construction and atmosphere on to a more weighty plane that it deserved.

The Scherzo would have gained, like the Debussy Intermede, from a more brisk staccato and a softer dynamic.   In the music I have for the work, there is no request for anything beyond mezzo-forte from the keyboard until the D flat chords four bars before Number 14; as it was, this presto impressed as lumpen-footed, lacking biting humour or acerbic spark.   Still, the D Major interlude/Trio was accomplished with sympathy and polish, in particular Markiyan Melnychenko’s quadruple stops and quiet, present harmonics.

Both musicians gave the Andante its space and showed a well-controlled dynamic balance, notably in the long central pages where triplets are the order of the day; their subsiding into that marvellous, simply-achieved drift down a chromatic scale at Figure 31 impressed also for its sweetness of timbre from the violin and gentle underpinning from Oksana Melnychenko.

Both musicians enjoyed the vigour of Prokofiev’s concluding Allegro con brio but a good deal of this sonata section came across as strident.   As with many another reading of this work, the deceleration at Figure 37 struck me as unnecessary; as far as I can see, the composer only wants a change of pace twice during this movement  –  for the rest of the time, it makes sense in the actual music itself to maintain a steady metre.   The final eight bars would have gained a good deal in accuracy if the tempo initially adopted had been more considered and the sustaining pedal not so readily employed.   Yes, Prokofiev has a reputation as a seeker after the percussive, but not in this elegant if sometimes ebullient score.

I’ve heard Markiyan Melnychenko in larger combinations before this and found plenty to admire in the accuracy of his pitching and the finesse of his delivery, the technical and emotional control evident no matter how ardent the composer’s temperament.   Of course, these qualities emerged often in this particular night’s work but it seemed as if both musicians were making hard work of their music-making –  like the Debussy which should shimmer with energy, not be delivered with gritty determination and hard-edged insistence.