On Alexander Melnikov’s latest album, titled “Fantasie,” the Russian pianist performs music by seven composers including two Bachs, Mendelssohn, Busoni, and Schnittke. Despite the Romantic reveries implied by the title—in the feet of a lesser pianist, this would be a washed, pedal-heavy album—Melnikov’s approach to the fantasies is decisive and articulate, full of precision and bite. Melnikov plays each piece on the record on a different keyboard instrument, but that seems almost secondary to the clearly-etched lines that unify his interpretations. 

Full disclosure: I met Melnikov in 2013, when I spent a year working at an artist management company booking travel for him and other artists. So it was natural that our conversation began with Melnikov’s fascination with flight: Besides a cow on a chessboard and a miniature statue of Beethoven’s head, his living room is decorated with a scale model of the Concorde, and he has a flight simulator set up in his study. We talked about why flying a plane is more relaxing than chugging vodka, his experience with impostor syndrome, and the moments that make performing worth it. 

VAN: You’ve had your private pilot’s license since 2000. Now you’re in the process of applying for a job as a pilot at Eurowings. What made you want to become a commercial pilot alongside your music career? 

Alexander Melnikov: I always did like flying; I never flew a lot, but I also never let my ratings collapse. Initially, I just wanted to improve. In 2015, I got my multi-engine rating, and then, in 2017, I started thinking about getting my instrument rating. I knew through Isabelle [Faust] that Daniel Harding was doing it, and I thought, “OK, if he can do this, so can I.” It’s funny, because I do communicate with him, but absolutely only as a pilot. We never ever talk about anything musical. I asked him for help finding jobs and he was very accommodating. 

Because of how the training industry is shaped, I saw that doing the whole [commercial pilot’s license], rather than just getting an instrument rating [made the most sense]. Just before the pandemic, I was feeling progressively… I didn’t want to play less or anything, but I wanted something else. I wanted a challenge that had nothing to do with music. So I started, and in the first two years you just need to get through the 14 theory subjects. Normally it’s a full-time thing, but I was doing all this while playing concerts and [having my] family. I liked the challenge.

And then the pandemic stuck. I got stuck in Spain. In many ways it was a remarkable time. Some people say it was a fantastic time; I’ll never say that because there were so many tragedies. But for my personal development it was indeed very nice, because it made me realize things I wouldn’t have had time to realize otherwise.

Like what? 

What do I like and what don’t I like about my profession? What do I need, what don’t I need? How does it feel to do something completely different? How does it feel to play the piano without the enormous pressure of giving concerts for which one, yet again, is not ready? 

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When I asked Harding about aviation, he said that what he likes about it is that there’s no connection to music at all. Would you say it’s the same for you?

Every time I think about the connection between music and aviation is exclusively during an interview. Sometimes you’ll listen to music while on an airplane, and sometimes a musician is a pilot. But no, there is no connection. 

I can say that I’ve learned a lot [from aviation]. I don’t know if it helps me as a musician—I want to think it does, but I’m not sure. Of the 14 subjects [in aviation theory], 80 percent are bullshit. And I’m not afraid of that word, although you probably won’t print it…

I will…

… 20 percent is very interesting: meteorology, navigation, human performance, flight planning, etc. Then at the end, we had a 40-hour Multi-Crew Cooperation course in a 737 simulator. And that was an eye-opener for me: it had to do with crisis management, risk management, crew resource management, and knowing your own human limitations. At some point I got completely furious at how many unbelievably useful and simple techniques I didn’t know existed to tackle a crisis situation. It may sound cheesy, but every time I’m faced with a crisis—including in my emotional life—I actually do a certain acronym. 

What’s the acronym?

We had PIOSEE, which is problem, information, options, solution, execution, evaluation. If you actually do those steps—if you structure it—it’s a miracle. Suddenly, seemingly unsolvable problems… they don’t get easier, they don’t go away, but you know what you can and can’t do with them. The chances are higher that you’ll get to the optimal solution. I don’t know if it helps me as a musician, but it helps me enormously as a person. 

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In his book Skyfaring, pilot Mark Vanhoenacker writes about how much he loves to listen to music when he’s an airline passenger. Harding tried to listen to music while flying once and hated it. Do you like to listen to music on airplanes? 

It’s impossible: first of all, you need the real, active noise-canceling headphones, and I find them horrible. As a passenger, when I fly, I won’t even watch a good film.

I’m just so fascinated by flight. It actually helps me to not go crazy with all the horrors of modern travel. I’ve never gotten to the point where I close the window and sit in the metal tube and watch a stupid film. Once I flew from New Zealand to London via LA. The entire concept that you get to see two sunrises within 24 hours… Every takeoff, whether I’m flying or being flown, is such an incredible moment. I’ll never get tired of it. But I would never listen to music on an airplane unless I need it for work—which happens often. 

I don’t know any other activity like flying: every flight, even in the simulator, you forget everything else. Well, you could drink two liters of vodka and forget everything—but not even. [Laughs.] Daniel Harding put it beautifully, he said, [when you fly] it’s a creative process, but nobody sees it and the result you want is that nothing happens. 


During the pandemic, you worked on a drone firefighting business with your ex-flight instructor. If that business had taken off, would you still be playing music professionally now? 

I don’t have an answer for that. Before the pandemic, I thought of taking a two-year break, to learn the harpsichord properly, look into jazz—do the things I always wish I was doing—and fly. I’ve clearly been bitten by the flying bug. 

What I feel desperately now is that if I just stopped [the process of becoming a commercial pilot], I wouldn’t have closure, because I’ve come so far with it: I want to at least get a job and try it out. 

I would consider not playing and flying [instead]. Yes, because I’ve played enough. I love music, but my love for music does not necessarily have a lot to do with my love for playing concerts—they’re two different things. And my ambition is somewhat satisfied because I don’t see my career as a total failure.

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Do you love playing concerts?

No. But: I can say “no,” and then [it’s like], “Look at how honest I am.” It’s revolting and a bad thing to say this, because this industry—I hate the word industry—is full of fantastic people who don’t play concerts, and who would give anything in order to do so. What kind of an arrogant dick am I when I say, “I don’t like to play concerts,” and yet I’m taking these peoples’ places? I never forget that either. It goes into very hard territory. 

It’s easy for me to love the piece and the composer. That’s not a problem, even though I’m not nearly as good as I’d like to be and even though I often feel like an impostor. But I’ve decided, If I’m doing this, I’m an impostor, too bad. But I have to try to be a good imposter. That’s the solution with which I live at the moment, which justifies playing all those concerts for me. And very often I’m really in love with a piece. 

But do I love playing concerts? No, I’m just too nervous. Whereas, when I’m playing well, I don’t think it really happens on stage—it would usually be at home. What percentage of your playing time do you spend on stage? Compared to practicing, it’s very little. Plus, you’re handicapped by nerves, which paralyzes absolutely everything. So no. 

What I love about being on stage, and it’s an incredible drug, is being next to a phenomenal musician and to feel, Now something special is happening. I had it maybe three times in my life. Once when I was playing the most famous piece ever, Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, for the first time, and [Mikhail] Pletnev made me learn it in two weeks or something. I almost died, but I was young back then: I could still do it. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but then at the very end of the last movement, as he was conducting the big tutti, I just felt something overwhelming, something you feel in Pletnev’s concerts, but closer

I also had that feeling sitting next to Andreas Staier playing Schubert four hands. He would start to play, and wow: You’re sitting next to a miracle. I had it sometimes with Currentzis too when I was his soloist. Following him, he would have this magic, I’d see his hand and there was nothing else. I’ve been lucky that that’s happened three times with me, you know? 

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Three times in a career doesn’t sound like a lot. 

No, it is a lot, because we are talking about some serious miracles. It’s like being in love. A lot of people die without being in love even once. It’s the same. But there is no aspect of being on stage that I enjoy when I’m alone there, absolutely not.

In the program note for your upcoming Rachmaninoff recitals at the Musikfest Berlin, you said, “We have cobbled together an image of Rachmaninoff that reduces his creative output to a small number of melodic pieces distorted into kitsch.” What do you see as the difference between the sort of stereotypical Rachmaninoff and the “real” Rachmaninoff? 

For many decades—not anymore, actually—there was a kind of widely accepted notion in the German and English-speaking worlds that Rachmaninoff was a phenomenal pianist, but that as a composer he didn’t really open any new horizons. First, I don’t necessarily see why every single composer has to open a new horizon. There are a lot of composers, even genius composers, who don’t necessarily break stylistic boundaries. You could make the same argument about Mendelssohn, but it’s wrong. Both Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff created instantly recognizable musical idioms: You hear two chords, and there’s no doubt who composed those two chords. This is already such an achievement that it’s completely wrong to speak about such a composer and to say that he didn’t do anything new. No, he (or she or they) created a new musical language which is instantly recognizable.

While most of Rachmaninoff’s music involves piano, there are two incredible sacred works, the “Vespers” and the “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Without knowing those works, it’s impossible to access the rest of his music: the modal and tonal structures, the harmonies, it’s all there. 

Rachmaninoff is unfortunate because he has a lot of notes, but in order to play his music well, a Mozart-like attention has to be given to all of them. Besides Rachmaninoff himself, the only pianist I know who does this is Pletnev. I’m not putting down other pianists, but it’s just too difficult. With this one exception of Pletnev, who manages—I don’t know how he does it.

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I remember I heard Pletnev play the Second Concerto in Warsaw, and of course I had even played the piece with him, I knew the hall, I knew the music, I knew everything. And I had this impression: I’m in a hall I don’t know, listening to music I don’t know, played on an instrument I’ve never heard. I’m not exaggerating. 

It requires a combination of dexterity in the hands and in the brain. When you play Rachmaninoff’s music, instead of taking care of two or three things, you have to take care of 15 things in one hand: the inner polyphony, the voice leading, phrasing, speed, trying not to hit only the wrong notes. 

It’s a curse, but despite all this, his music is unbelievably user-friendly, pianistically. It’s extremely tactile and pleasant to play. You want to do it. It’s like you’re given a Concorde: “Here, fly it.” But instead of a three-man crew, you’re one man and you actually don’t know what to do. But it’s still a Concorde; you still want to fly it. 

We’re always going to play Rachmaninoff’s music. It feels great, and it is great. And we always fail. That’s the price we have to pay. But we always hope. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...