MEDTNER: Skazki; Sonata in B-flat Minor, “Sonata Romantica”; RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme by Corelli; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor – Stephen Osborne, p. – Hyperion

MEDTNER: Skazki, Op. 20; Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 53, No. 1 “Sonata Romantica”; RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 (ed. Osborne) – Stephen Osborne, p. – Hyperion CDA67936, 72:01 (9/9/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Stephen Osborne (rec. 21-23 December 2012) juxtaposes two Romantic Russians, Medtner and Rachmaninov, in order to compare and distinguish their respective styles, both ground in the traditions of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Taneyev. Two works by each composer grace this program, often involving a barrage of “symphonic” keyboard sonorities.

Osborne begins with one of Medtner’s favorite forms, the Skazka or Fairytale, which in the composer’s terms equates to a Chopin Ballade or a Schumann extended maerchen.  The 1909 Skazki Op. 20 resound vigorously, the first Allegro con espessione in B-flat Minor, a chorale-like motif that means to convey an impassioned plea. The second, Campanella: Pesante, minaccioso, echoes aspects of Liszt while descending with clarion chords whose Russian bells Rachmaninov would emulate throughout his career.

The 1930 Sonata Romantica consists of four movements much in the manner of Chopin’s own Op. 35 “Funeral March” Sonata.  The opening Romanza: Andantino con moto, ma sempre espessivo exploits swirling arpeggios marked alternately agitato and tranquillo, the cadences a combination of Chopin and Balakirev. The layering soon becomes contrapuntal, typical for Medtner’s sense of developmental tapestry. While a vocal element in Medtner persists, his tendency to intricacy makes the melodic impulse secondary to rhythmic and polyphonic transformation. Suddenly, we descend to E-flat Minor for a vortex of a Scherzo, a toccata for leggiero and pesante effects. Osborne manages to provide a distinct sparkle to these digital and high-wrist manipulations, many of which find echoes in Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux.

Attacca, we enter the labyrinth of the Meditazione, which demands ultimately the light, intimate touch:  espessivo ma semlice, legatissimo, sordamente and una corda. Lilting, dotted rhythmic kernels proceed in somber progress, a modest, occasionally passionate lament with wisps of happier reminiscences. The last movement, Finale: Allegro non troppo, testifies to the composer’s cyclic penchant,  a toccata that contrapuntally ties together strains from the previous movements, a percussive, bell-motif prominent among them.  Osborne makes many of these energies gallop, only infrequently singing in an un-academic manner.  The clanging, obsessive motion of the piece finds a measure of justification in the poetry Osborne extrapolates from its knotty convulsions.

The real “find” in this program comes in the form of Osborne’s performance edition of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (1913; rev. 1931), which the composed subjected to tightening and elisions for the sake of Vladimir Horowitz.  The problem for Osborne lay in splicing the “expansive passion” of the original score to the “tighter structure and greater thematic unity” of the later version. Osborne testifies to the “clamorous virtuosity” of the score, that still demands “desperate passion” and “functional, architectural control.” Also from 1931, the Corelli Variations assert a “scholarly” impulse in Rachmaninov, akin to Liszt’s fascination with La Folia as a source for his own Spanish Rhapsody. The variant group themselves into the likes of a four-movement sonata, replete with a slow movement in major, after an Intermezzo cadenza, much of which seems to anticipate the Op. 43 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  In the course of these two mighty Rachmaninov colossi, Osborne demonstrate a musical and digital acumen that escalates his serving as an acolyte of the Russian, Rachmaninov style in the fullest sense: virtuosic and nostalgically sensitive at every turn. Steinway piano sound, courtesy of Recording Engineer David Hinitt captivates and moves us without any sense of acoustical intrusion.

—Gary Lemco

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