An Auspicious Survey of the Ages by Pianist Mackenzie Melemed
It’s always a good sign when a pianist’s best-performed pieces onstage are by Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Last night at the sonically superb auditorium at Temple Emanu-El just off Central Park, Mackenzie Melemed played a diverse program spanning from baroque to modern and excelled at all of it. There are other good eighteen-year-old pianists out there; what distinguishes Melemed from his peers is how attuned he is to emotional content. That, and blazing technique.
Melemed bookended the highly ornamented animation of Bach’s Aria Variata alla Maniera Italiana, BWV 989 with opening and concluding statements that were downright elegaic. After making his way through the alternately elegant and torrentially waltzing initial movements of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 26, Melemed sensed the proto-Chopin in the murky third movement and brought that plaintive foreshadowing into the dirge. And he gave a saturnine, deeply felt reading to Brahms’ Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. These are late works, in fact the last that the composer wrote for solo piano, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder narrative that finally reaches to a heroic overture, giving Melemed a chance to air out a blazing fortissimo. Obviously, there are dynamics in all but the Bach that suggest specific emotions. But Melemed clearly didn’t just have those works in his fingers (he played from memory); they were in his head.
A brisk, precise take of a Scarlatti sonata was the curtain-lifter. Melemed established a similar upward trajectory after the intermission with a matter-of-factly crescendoing and eventually wrenching, emphatic take on Liszt’s Funerailles, then four Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux. These little preludes are brief but extremely challenging: Melemed charged through diabolically difficult, lightning-fast chromatics, a vivid two-handed conversation or two, stygian spaciousness versus twilit glitter and seemed to be having a ball – you would too, if you had the technique to play them. He wound up the concert with similarly acrobatic romps through Avner Dorman’s recent, equally knotty, picturesque Three Etudes. Melemed speed-painted Sundrops Over Windy Water, let the spacious, jazz-tinged block chords of the Funeral March linger and concluded with Snakes and Ladders, a showstopper with its rumbling low lefthand, crazily dancing motives and machinegunning chromatics. Sensing that the need for more fireworks was in order, he encored with a magnificent, express-train coda, Chopin’s famous Winter Wind Etude, Op. 25, No. 11.
The Sunday concert series here features a lot of similar first-rate, up-and-coming talent. The next concert is January 19 at 3 PM with pianist Hannah Sun.