MEDTNER: Piano Concerto No. 2 in c; RACHMANINOV: Piano Con. No. 3 in d – Marc-Andre Hamelin, p./ London Philharmonic Orch./ Vladimir Jurowski – Hyperion

Hamelin exhibits colossal technique and vitality in two Russian concertos that lack the magic of a live concert.

MEDTNER: Piano Concerto No. 2 in c, Op. 50; RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in d, Op. 30 – Marc-Andre Hamelin, p./ London Philharmonic Orch./ Vladimir Jurowski – Hyperion CDA68145, 82:09 (3/31/17) [Distr. by HM/PIAS] ****:

The music of Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) seems to enjoy a kind of renaissance, especially as the more familiar keyboard works from the Russian repertory become tired. Often referred to as “the Russian Brahms,” Medtner (rec. 7 March 2016) scores his works into a classical structure rife with rhythmic propulsion and thick harmonic syntax, but almost always within a conservative, tonal parameter. The Second Piano Concerto (1920-27) bears a dedication to Serge Rachmaninov, and it arranges its three movements as a kind of bravura dance suite: Toccata: Allegro risoluto; Romanza: Andane con moto; and Divertimento: Allegro risoluto e molto vivace.

The piano constitutes the main ingredient in the Second Concerto, and is virtually ever-active.  Only prior to a cadenza entry does the piano remain silent. The attraction of the first movement lies in a clearly Russian, militant character, offset by a folksy lyricism. Medtner seems to favor triplet figures, juxtaposed against syncopations and occasionally thick counterpoint. The really brisk figures open up into an optimistic G Major. The Skazka or Fairy Tale from Op. 14, “The March of the Paladin,” supplies a melodic inspiration.  The music assumes a large, epic canvas, culminating in the cadenza, which proves punishing and labyrinthine, as well as clangorous in its impassioned moments. As a dedication to Rachmaninov, the cadenza seems incredibly apt. The fugato writing that carries us to the coda bears a family resemblance to the polyphony in the Brahms d minor Concerto and aspects of Max Reger.

The A-flat Major Romanza combines a spun-out melodic line with variations – the French horn nicely prominent – with a strong sense of supple improvisation. The texture becomes thick relatively quickly, only to thin out in suave, strumming pattern and ensuing mix with the woodwinds not so far from jazz technique. The trills and sudden, rather voluptuous scherzo aspect of this middle movement points to Rachmaninov as a direct influence. The volume of arpeggios and gliding figures testifies to an erotic impulse built on stretti that well reminds us of the d minor Concerto likewise found on this program.  Given the various demands on touch and color, little wonder that Hamelin cherishes this Russian bravura vehicle for his own temperament. The repeated riffs in the orchestra – assuming my ear does not lie – hint at the late Schumann, like his Introduction and Allegro, Op. 134.

Almost invisibly, Hamelin and Jurowski thrust us into the Divertmento, a triple-time movement of diverse character, including moments of humor. The transitions occur in playful staccato chords from Hamelin, supported by a swirling dance tune in strings, winds, and horns. Out of the blue, a mock-Strauss tune appears, gypsy-style, or perhaps a nod to the Richard Strauss Burleske. The writing becomes decidedly militant as well as bemused, scurrying and lilting at once. The dance has become repetitious, even reiterating elements from the first movement now in martial guise as it moves to a gaudy, hectic conclusion, with Hamelin’s active fingers at full throttle, a combination of the titan elements of Rachmaninov and Liszt in splashy colors.

By now, the “Rach Three” has become so much a concert staple as to be taken for granted: its epic melancholy, its rhapsodic development, religious doxology, its tendency to introduce tender melodies and gestures that proceed by acceleration. Still, there endure wonderful color combinations in French horn, trumpet, flute, oboe, and strings as they intertwine with the grand piano part. Atypical of many modern performers, Hamelin chooses the Rachmaninov revision of the first movement, the less-dense cadenza. Hamelin effects a flexible but palpably consistent pulsation for the first movement that adds a terrific tension to the sheer variety and bulk of layered melodies and cascading passagework. However “conservative” Hamelin’s cadenza may purport to be, his aggressive authority in the octave passages and broken chord progressions will stagger even the most ossified of ears. The gorgeous sound of Hamelin’s Steinway has been captured (10 March 2016) in warm, clear tones by master recording engineer Simon Eadon.

The second movement Intermezzo: Adagio lulls us in f-sharp minor, the same key as Mozart’s parallel movement in Concerto No. 23 in A. The music descends to D-flat Major for a nervously nostalgic glimpse of sunshine. Hamelin plays his entry in the spirit of an improvisation, musing, briefly dancing, relishing trills and repeated notes. A sudden thrust sounds like a passionate, contrapuntal prelude, soon orchestrated. Rhapsodic mutterings recall the opening movement, with emotional jabs from the orchestra. Piano and orchestra engage in a twittering, swirling waltz episode that will move us to a truncated cadenza in preparation for the sweeping, brash foray into the Finale: Alla breve, with its shameless quotation from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Hamelin demonstrates a supple left hand in a galloping series of syncopations aided by Technicolor orchestral effects. The rest continues, bravura-fashion, in predictably large gestures, gallantly executed, but with few surprises. We may have here a precision, colorfully tailored performance that lacks the one ingredient that would raise its technical proficiency to that empyrean level, a live audience.

—Gary Lemco

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