Pianist Alexander Melnikov embodies what’s best about Phillips recital series

Concerts at the Phillips Collection are far from ideal. This storied venue, which has offered regular concerts since 1941 and where Glenn Gould made his U.S. debut, has many drawbacks. There is no platform for the artists, so not many patrons can actually see. Like with the airlines, the imperative of getting as many people into as small of a space as possible forces the audience into cramped seats where listeners have to keep their knees and elbows close their bodies. The room is so small that a grand piano at fortissimo is almost painful to listen to.

That said, the Phillips’s recital series is currently the best in Washington. Music director Caroline Mousset presents the most consistently high quality of any small venue in the region, with well-known or unknown artists — uniformly excellent — at a low price ($20).

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On Sunday, Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov flexed his considerable keyboard muscles in Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes,” Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2, and Alexander Scriabin’s “Fantasie in B Minor.” The virtuoso elements were handled with almost insolent mastery, the artist never projecting any sense of stress. But it was in the gentler music — his imagination and ability to create long narrative arcs — that puts him among the most elite pianists today.

In the Schumann, the shaping of the theme, the Variations IV and V, and the penultimate piece (“Con espressione”) revealed a musician who maintains a clear concept of the whole, placing each detail in proper proportion. While he could not achieve complete clarity in the “violin” variation (Etude No. 3) — almost impossible to realize perfectly — he made light of all of the difficulties elsewhere. The Scriabin was impressive, and the Prokofiev was a complete triumph. Melnikov was in his element, hurling thunderbolts with abandon.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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