Classical CD Reviews

MEDTNER: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. I = Sonatina in G Minor; Sonata No. 1 in F Minor; Sonata-Reminiscenza in A Minor – Paul Stewart, p. – Grand Piano

First of a four-volume survey of Medtner’s sonata oeuvre, performed upon a Steinway Medtner himself played on in 1929.

Published on September 25, 2012

MEDTNER: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. I = Sonatina in G Minor; Sonata No. 1 in F Minor; Sonata-Reminiscenza in A Minor – Paul Stewart, p. – Grand Piano

MEDTNER: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. I = Sonatina in G Minor; Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 5; Sonata-Reminiscenza in A Minor, Op. 38, No. 1 – Paul Stewart, p. – Grand Piano GP617, 58:22 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Retrospectively, it seems ironic that Rachmaninov should call Nikolay Medtner (1880-1951) “the greatest composer of our time,” considering the relative obscurity of his contemporary reputation, made even more ironic, given that his fourteen piano sonatas represent the largest contribution to the genre since Beethoven. Canadian pianist Paul Stewart here undertakes a four-volume survey of Nikolay Medtner’s sonata oeuvre, performed upon a Steinway that Medtner himself played on in Montreal in 1929.

The present recital (rec. 20-23 December 2011) opens with a fragment from 1898 (first published n 1981), a Sonatina in G Minor rife with glittery textures and syncopations that hint at both Faure and Tchaikovsky at once and might be mistaken for some early Debussy opus. The secondary theme proves more martial and gives way to the Scherzo, a polyphonic clone of elements in Swan Lake. The modal inclinations, combined with liquid textures and staccato chords, make a ravishing combination of sounds in stretto, almost a colorful troika moving in ever-thickening panoply that concludes with the Scherzo motto in syncopes, in the manner of a jazz improvisation.

Around 1900 Medtner declined a life as a traveling piano virtuoso and opted for the more sedentary life of a composer, performing only Beethoven’s keyboard works in public. The Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op 5 (1903) allies itself through key and opus number with Brahms, but no less with Medtner’s favorite among Beethoven sonatas, the Appassionata, which he recorded. The repeated melodic line in the large Allegro first movement derives from Schumann, who used the descending motto as a call to his beloved Clara Wieck. The bass rhythm no less reminds us of the opening movement from Chopin’s B-flat Minor Sonata. Personal history attributes the longing theme to Medtner’s passion for Anna Bratenshi, who eventually married his older brother, Emil. The wedding, however, did not prevent Nikolay and Anna from living the Tristan und Iseult myth quite realistically for two decades before they finally married each other in 1919.

The dark Intermezzo which follows projects a Wagnerian fate motif, but the syncopations could easily pass for Rachmaninov. Martial and aggressive, the music stomps forward in chromatic riffs, interrupted, then proceeds once more in rather stolid chords. A Moderato-Andante ensues to serve as a transition to the third movement, Largo divito. One could argue this movement serves in lieu of Chopin’s Funeral March: a series of chorale figures, pietoso, move to open chords, religioso. The contrapuntal swirl resembles a Godowsky or Liszt treatment of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. When he hear echoes of the “Anna” theme, we begin to suspect an adumbration of Mahler strides among us. The high register detached chords cast a Spanish aura or point to Debussy.

Constructed from tissue of the preceding movements, the Finale: Allegro risoluto storms forth, relaxing for the “Anna” theme, religioso. The left hand bass part, heavy and chromatic, reminds us of headlong Schumann, manic and contrapuntal. The pearly play becomes quite brilliant, the figures combined as roulades and running arpeggios, the point to make a series of pealing bells. The polyphony extends forward, shifting registers and quite digitally demanding. The impetus breaks off to strum chords in a ballade-like fashion, parlando writing mixed with the agitated bass pattern that now increases in momentum until the romantic theme achieves a pulverizing triumph of spectacular chords at the coda.

The most performed of his piano sonatas, the single-movement Op. 38 Sonata Reminiscenza (1920) takes a less aggressive stance than the Op. 5, invoking nostalgia and sweet remembrance. Pianist Alexandre Goldenweiser complimented its “spirit of true poetry and profound internal significance.” Marked Andantino con moto, the music maintains a  restless, heart-beat pulse whose sadness might reflect the revolutionary times of its composition, glancing back at a Russia that no longer existed. The sensibility seems to lie exactly between Scriabin and Rachmaninov, interrupted mid-way by a martial energy in chromatic runs that takes a metronomic cue from Chopin and Bach. Typically, Medtner builds the polyphony and breaks off into declamations, influenced perhaps by the Schumann C Major Fantasie. When we recall the pedagogy of Sergey Taneyev in Medtner’s development, much of Medtner’s structural format becomes clear. The last pages invoke an aura of orientalism, homage to Balakirev and his ilk. The pretty nostalgia of the opening returns, innocent and pearly, as though nothing could ruffle its inner security.

—Gary Lemco

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