"To survive in this profession, you have to develop an educator and a critic in yourself."
Alexei Melnikov was born in Moscow in 1990. He began to study music at the Gnessin Specialized Secondary School of Music with Tatiana Shklovskaya. He graduated from Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he studied with Professor Sergei Dorenskiy, a People's Artist of Russia, and his assistants Nikolai Luganskiy, Pavel Nersesyan, and Andrei Pisarev. In 2014 he won the International Piano Competition in San Marino and received special prizes there. In 2015 he won the International Piano Concerto Competition in Cantu, Italy and the III prize award at the International Piano Competition in Hamamatsu, Japan. In 2017, he won the Second Manhattan International Music Competition in New York. In 2019, Alexei Melnikov won the third prize award at the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition. He tours Russia and Europe. He is involved in programs of the Saint Petersburg Music House since 2016.
Alexei Melnikov: I've been involved in Saint. Petersburg Music House projects for many years. Frankly, I'm used to treating every concert, maybe it sounds too pathetic, as the last one. Still, it's very probable that someone is being in the hall for the very first time, while someone is probably being there the last time. So I try to set myself up that way. If I highlight individual performances, it would be to say that others were less important or less memorable. There is no difference where I play: for example, St. Petersburg Music House has taken me to Africa, to India, or if I play at the Mariinsky Theatre, for me a concert will always be a concert, and there can be creative discoveries and revelations at any venue.
St. Petersburg House of Music (SPDM): You often play Rachmaninoff. Luckily, there are some recordings of him playing. Is this some kind of recommendation to you?
Alexei Melnikov: Of course, for me this is not only a recommendation, but also a reference point for my creativity. However, my professor Dorensky always said you should definitely listen to Rachmaninoff, but never try to imitate, because it's impossible. It's hard to disagree. But nevertheless, of course, it is a pure treasure - the Rachmaninoff recordings. We are very lucky that they have survived. And it is unlikely that anything in the history of recording will ever surpass it, at least for the piano repertoire.
SPDM: You have participated in numerous competitions, how do you feel about the fact that you do not always win?
Alexei Melnikov: I don't feel anything about it. It all depends on the case. Sometimes, I think, I quite deservedly dropped out in the first round or didn't get something, sometimes, I think to have been kicked off unfairly, despite I played better than others, but it doesn't matter because this is not a sports competition. People sitting on the jury have their own discretion, which is not in any way the ultimate truth. You should take it easy.
SPDM: What role did the Tchaikovsky Competition play in your career?
Alexei Melnikov: It has played a big role for my career in Russia, probably a crucial one. Because I was winning awards in other countries such as Japan and Italy before the Tchaikovsky competition. And, accordingly, I had some kind of career there. I played my first recital ever in Italy, not Russia. That's the way it worked out. But after the Tchaikovsky Competition, I started playing a lot in Russia, and the Moscow Philharmonic started to engage me frequently. Of course, I'm very happy about that, because I love to travel around our country and play.
SPDM: Have you ever had a performance where you didn't feel an audience response, didn't feel connected to the audience? What to do in such cases?
Alexei Melnikov: Yes, such performances are part of the profession, part of life, you can't escape them. There's nothing you can do about it. It depends on many factors: on your own state of mind, you might not be able to lead the audience, you might have bad acoustics, a bad piano, there are different audiences - those who are more prepared, those who are less prepared. Of course, for people who are from a completely different world, for whom classical music is completely alien, of course, it's very difficult to get involved, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes there is just a blank wall, but I just accept that. Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often.
SPDM: Whose opinion counts first for you when it relates to your performance, or in general to the music of a particular composer. There is your teacher's opinion, your own, the public's feedback, reviews from people close to you, and critics - very often these opinions are at odds.
Alexei Melnikov: To survive in this profession, you have to develop an educator and a critic in yourself. The main thing you learn at conservatory is to work independently. It's something you have to learn because opinions differ. In order not to get headaches, you need to limit the number of opinions you listen to, after all. First and foremost, of course, is personal feeling. The teacher can't go to every concert you play, the teacher can't listen to all your recordings. Of course, I listen to the opinions of fellow musicians. My friends, my wife who is a musician - they all say something. And I know they sincerely want me to play better. So I listen to them. Of course, my teachers, Nikolai Lugansky, Sergei Dorensky, when he was with us, Andrei Pisarev, Pavel Nersesian - these are musicians I have great respect for. Their opinion is very authoritative for me. And always will.
SPDM: According to Schumann, one of the “thumb rules" for musicians is "When you get older, don't play anything trendy. Time is precious. You have to have a hundred human lives to know just about everything good that exists in the world." Do you follow this rule? And what can be called trendy in classical music today?
Alexei Melnikov: It's hard to compare times. When Schumann said this, music was in its heyday, its peak, its zenith. There was so much new music - trendy, good, bad, different music; there were pianos in every house, it was a living art, life was booming. We live in a very different time now, when there is a very big gap between performers and composers of today, when in the repertoires, if you look at the posters, you almost never see composers of today, very rarely, as a rule, in some specific festivals or at certain performers who play just that. Unfortunately, I don't even know what to call trendy, it's hard for me to say if there's even one truly world-famous composer like Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich. We are going through such a crisis. I think that now in classical music there is no mainstream, no trendy, no non-trendy, no definite style. It used to be clear: the era of classicism, romanticism... Now there are a thousand styles, a thousand composers, and very little really worthwhile music.
SPDM: If you were making rules for pianists, what would the first three be?
Alexei Melnikov: I wouldn't make rules for pianists.
SPDM: How do you choose your solo repertoire? Is it a rather rational choice - something the public will probably like, or an emotional one - something that primarily excites you?
Alexei Melnikov: It's a symbiosis. I will never play something I don't want to play, even if it gets me a standing ovation. First of all, I can't play that well. And secondly, why? There's a lot of music that I like and the audience likes. I try to combine. If I know that there is a difficult piece on my program that requires intense listening, I try to dilute the program with something more accessible.
SPDM: Who is the composer you admire, not just as a musician, but as a person?
Alexei Melnikov: There are many of them. This is, of course, Rachmaninoff, who, from all appearances, was just a wonderful person and public activist, helping people a lot. This is Liszt, who was an absolutely tremendous figure on a universal scale, not only for music, but for art in general, for culture, it is difficult to overestimate his importance, his contribution to the development of music, when he promoted other composers. He had absolutely no selfishness, which is inherent in creative people. He unselfishly promoted what seemed to be his competitors - an outstanding man.
SPDM: Do you think it's important to know the "context" in which a piece was created, the circumstances in which the author worked, or is it better to think out something from scratch?
Alexei Melnikov: Music is less of a contextual art among others. But nevertheless, context does play a role, of course. For example, I can't imagine how you can play Chopin's ballades if you haven't read a single poem by Mickiewicz; how you can play Schumann if you haven't read Hoffmann; how you can play the Variations on a theme by Corelli without knowing the history of that theme, some stylistic allusions, and meanings that are hidden in the Variations. That's the first thing that comes to my mind. But there are compositions that don't require so much immersion in time, in context. Bach, for example, will probably be understood by anyone, even if they don't know when the music was written and under what circumstances.
SPDM: What are you interested in besides music: tell me about your hobbies, favorite books, sports...
Alexei Melnikov: Now I have only one passion, which is to manage to learn everything, to have all programs ready. There is absolutely no time. I'm very happy if I have time to read something. It's probably my only hobby. I love chess. I mostly watch them, not play them. But music, of course, takes up too much time to allow myself any hobbies.
SPDM: What are you expecting from next year: tell me about your dreams, and plans.
Alexei Melnikov: I'm not very prone to daydreaming. I rather have plans of a purely professional nature: what I want to do, what I want to play. I'd like to record a CD. I have a CD, but it's been released for quite some time. I think there's some repertoire that I'm not likely to play much in the future anymore, because I've already played it a lot. But I'd like to keep it somehow. I feel like I have a lot to say in this repertoire, so I intend to do that.
Interview by Tatiana Mikhailova