On a fine day for a fine afternoon piano recital in the handsome Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, overlooking the open ocean through a bright window wall, Mackenzie Melemed matched the environment well. His publicity identifies him as a Juilliard product, 28 years old, but his pianistic maturity qualifies him as one twice that age. He turns out to be a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, currently based in Finland when not traveling all over the world. (I felt resonant with his name: my grandmother was born a MacKenzie, and many of my family are melamdim, teachers.) And he has an easygoing manner of speaking preparatively with his audience, which filled the hall in Rockport with over-60s.
Bach’s B-flat major Partita no 1, BWV 825, the most familiar of this beloved group of six big suites, led off, crisp, clean, animated, and above all, singing in tone. The Gigue went by too fast; but on the other hand, hearing it a very high velocity enabled some of the voice-leading across the texture (including cross-hand leaps) to be heard more smoothly.
Bartók’s Suite, op. 14 from 1916 is less popular with pianists than the impressionistic Out of Doors suite of 1926, but the earlier work, with its folksong spirit and brusque, percussive ambience, as well as its emotional roots in the Allegro barbaro composed five years before, is at least as radically original. (“Splendid,” wrote Alban Berg after hearing this suite, in a letter to Erwin Schulhoff.) Melemed’s crystal-clear pianism landed right on target at every moment, whether in the frantic Scherzo (the tempo marking is approximately two bars per second, 3/4 in quarter notes), or the moody, harmonically complex Sostenuto at the end. Melemed told the audience beforehand that he would follow this immediately with Liszt’s Funerailles, beginning in a low register, and this turned out to be an effective choice, matching the two works in lugubrious Hungarian tone. Somewhat overwritten like so many of Liszt’s solo works, Melemed’s conception shaped it into well-placed climaxes of big, even scary sound without any hint of excessive force. The marching fanfares (Liszt seemed to be borrowing from the left-hand octaves section of Chopin’s op. 53 Polonaise) sounded relentless, and once more one wonders what Liszt himself would have thought of today’s huge Steinway sound. The end of Funerailles, with three pianissimo low-register chords, almost suggests that Liszt was warming himself up for his huge Sonata, composed at about the same time.
After the intermission we heard a gentle warmup: Five Preludes, op. 16, by Scriabin, composed 1895 when Scriabin was 23 years old and already stretching his post-Chopin boundaries. These lovely little pieces, each only one to two pages long each, explore more harmonically than anything the composer’s year-younger contemporary Rachmaninoff had yet written, but Scriabin’s later plunge into atonal chromaticism is nowhere in sight. After this short breath Melemed unhesitatingly tackled the largest work on the program: Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes in the form of Variations, op. 13. The very title of this great work already suggests questions. “Symphonic” implies “developing”, if not actually orchestral, and “etudes” implies studies of individual technical problems, generally in the form of regular, non-developing textures — and why would they be variations? In fact, one soon finds that the individual variations often conceal their relationship to the Andante theme (“by an amateur”, says the score) almost totally, and in fact two of the etudes aren’t variations at all (nos. 3 and 9); but this flexibility is Schumann’s way of expanding formal boundaries at the same time that he sticks close to them — in key, in phrase structure, in texture. The basic motive is a downward melody of four notes: C sharp, G sharp, E, C sharp, arpeggiating a triad, and this is prominent in several variations as well as the finale. Beyond this, every pianist must decide which version to play — the original, or the second edition revised at Clara Schumann’s behest? Nearly every pianist today chooses the second edition, but Melemed cannily included the first-edition differences in the seconda volta wherever a repeat was indicated. The most significant divergences arrive in the Finale, the big No. 12 Etude in D-flat major; the second edition has a literal repeat of the A section instead of a considerably varied repeat; Melemed opted for the standard second edition, which disappointed to me, but probably no one else, because his dramatic playing held every moment of the audience’s fixed attention.
Other wonderful moments abounded in this fine Schumann drama. Etude no. 3 is really an etude for violin, arpeggiating across four strings, but of course it’s written very awkwardly for piano — no matter that the sound is wonderful. Etude no. 4 is entirely canonic — Schumann was a master of canonic writing — but it’s hard to hear as a canon because it’s written like a march. Etude no. 9 is parked Presto possible in impossible 3/16 meter, but our pianist rolled out the left-hand octaves as naturally and easily as you please. The G-sharp minor variation (No. 9, Etude 11), with its murmuring left-hand harmony, has a duet dialogue in the right hand, very cantabile, a delicate but great prelude to the outbursting Finale. Melemed controlled this with perfect sensitivity.
(Odd footnote: Some editions of the Symphonic Etudes include five extra variations that Schumann wisely pulled out and set aside before publishing the work; they remained unpublished until after his death. Some recordings now include them, which makes the whole Opus 13 a sprawling 40-minute affair, and Melemed, when I spoke to him after the concert, mentioned his understandable reluctance, at present, to add them. But the fifth of these orphans, in D-flat major, marked Moderato, forms a neat nocturne, which I have twice heard used by itself as an encore. I think Schumann would not have minded, at that.)
Partly in tribute to the country where he resides and to its national-monument composer, Mackenzie Melemed played a remarkable encore: Sibelius’s own piano solo arrangement of Finlandia. (!) It begins, in this version, remarkably like Funerailles, in the bottom octaves of the piano. I was prepared to protest, but halfway through I was impressed, and smiling all the way at this fresh piano version.