Kenny Broberg plays Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Medtner – Steinway and Sons

by | Feb 2, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 36; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; MEDTNER: Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25/2 “Night Wind”; Danza festiva, Op. 38/3 –  Kenny Broberg, piano – Steinway & Sons 30198 (1/23/23) (70:20) [Distr. by Naxos] *****: 

Kenny Broberg (b. 1993) captured the silver medal at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and a bronze medal at the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition, as well as prizes at the Hastings, Sydney, Seattle and New Orleans International Piano Competitions. Of recent note, Broberg was the winner of the 2021 American Pianists Awards. This debut recital for Steinway & Sons (rec. 1 November 2021) from the Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, features three Russian sonatas in contrasting yet explosive temperaments, each bearing a plethora of color possibilities created by composers who themselves were master pianists. 

Broberg opens with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1912 Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major, which he later revised and tightened in 1931. Broberg’s startling entry, Allegro agitato, of the B-flat arpeggio resounds with color, lush and percussive, at once. The sense of improvisation informs this account, rife with shifting harmonies and bell tones, passing cadenza motifs, and a grand chorale, resonating in D-flat Major. A parlando-recitative intrudes upon the flurry of impulses, a meditation that descends into brooding, tonally ambiguous magma ready to burst forth once more, but then resolves into quietude. 

After a brief interlude in G Major, Rachmaninoff marks the second movement Non Allegro – Lento in E Minor calling for a Brahmsian motif in falling thirds. The middle section exerts some passion, recycling themes from movement one. Broberg imbues this music with personal reflection, almost a salon meditation, after the grand design of the opening movement. In ¾, the interlude that opened the Lento reappears, only to explode in cyclical utilization of prior motifs. Broberg plays the music for its color variety, its throbbing intensity pealing or wistfully dreaming before further, martial and passionate outbursts. Despite an optimistic, new theme in D Major, the music must resolve in brilliant forays in B-flat Major, the coda especially ostentatious in its demand for Broberg’s inflamed bravura.        

The eminent writer Boris Pasternak once remarked of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), “It looked as though it would not take much to make him rise up into the air and fly away.” Scriabin himself expressed his keen desire for flight, for escape, from the diurnal intrusiveness of routine: “I can’t bear to hear other people’s music all day long and  then write my own music at night.” He would flee to Switzerland to realize his “new dreams,” to be revealed to his public “I was once a Chopinist, then a Wagnerian, now I am only a Scriabinist.” By 1906, Scriabin had dispensed with much of traditional tonality, eliminating key signatures, and his new “mystic chord” built on fourths – C-F#-B-flat-E-A-D – dominates his musical structures. The 1907 Fifth Sonata, completed almost immediately after the Symphony No. 4, The Poem of Ecstasy, embodies a blazing expression of upward audacities, and Broberg certainly addresses its compulsive momentum. Broberg’s tempos remain voluptuously swift, moving from slow, drooping figures that suddenly erupt into gallops that outdo Liszt and Chopin. The Languido section assumes a gripping eroticism, moving accarezzevole, caressingly and culminating ecstatico, in a burst of illumination, fff.  The sense of impulsive urgency dominates the performance, even as the music dematerializes in its final pages, imbued with poetic light.   

Broberg chooses to conclude an already impressive disc with two Medtner pieces, the first, one of the most challenging keyboard sonatas in the repertory, Nikolai Medtner’s 1911 E Minor Sonata, “Night Wind,” dedicated to Rachmaninoff. The opus designation seems to indicate its serving as a companion to the C Minor “Skazka” Sonata, but this epic work demands incredible stamina and musicianship, insisting upon a 15/8 metric for the first movement, which alone lasts for eighteen minutes! Medtner prefaces the work with an extended quote from Tyutchev’s poem “Silentium,” which celebrates the triumph of Chaos: 

What are you wailing about, night wind, what are you bemoaning with such fury? What does your strange voice mean, now indistinct and plaintive, now loud? In a language intelligible to the heart you speak of torment past understanding, and you moan and at times stir up frenzied sounds in the heart!

Oh, do not sing those fearful songs about primeval native Chaos! How avidly the world of the soul at night listens to its favorite story! It strains to burst out of the mortal breast and longs to merge with the Infinite … Oh, do not wake the sleeping tempests; beneath them Chaos stirs!

Medtner divides the score into a pair of Allegro movements, linked thematically in response to the two stanzas of the poem. The commanding, descending triplet figure from Broberg, marking the Introduzione, permeates the texture in sonata form, the sections marked by a passionate, sweeping series of gestures. The runs and gallops might well be ascribed to Rachmaninoff in their rich textures, the bass from Broberg insistent and haunted, a kind of “fate” motif. Much of the development plays in the manner of a stylized improvisation, often integrating silken runs with nervously martial, punctuated phrases. Medtner’s idea of singing line seems to arise from the middle of the commotion, a la Schumann and Rachmaninoff. The challenge—well met by Broberg—lies in maintaining the tension of the mercurial, flowing sections without dramatic sag. The strettos infiltrating the last pages sing in their own, thick textures, hammered and purred by Broberg, as required. The pungent coda combines Liszt and Rachmaninoff in a rare chemical combination.   

The Introduzione provides the materials for the second movement, Allegro molto sfrenatamente, here opening  almost without any sense of a new movement –  as an emotional torrent, urging the keyboard’s extremes in dynamics and color. Early, Medtner invests a fugato that plunks forward, teetering in an angular pattern, then dissolves into freely improvised and extensive fragments, the product of an overheated mind, whose manic fixation feels little repose from the various interludes that transpire. Some of the galloping figures again blend Liszt with Rachmaninoff in a most bravura display. 

After well over five minutes, a melody arises over a rumbling bass, a consolation of a kind, but rife with another form of anxiety. More canonic impulses urge themselves forth, highly decorative and percussive. Its declamations become insistent, obsessive, a vison either from Dante or Poe, much less Tyutchev. The procession breaks off into thin, lyrical splinters, still marked by the obsessive bass progression that itself incurs a march infested by runs, trills and broken chords. Another descent into the maelstrom before we, eventually, reach a coda that coalesces thematic shards over a tonic pedal, veiling the vision of Chaos from our perception, leaving us with two eddying arpeggios as a memory.  

Medtner’s “Danza festiva” from the Forgotten Melodies, First Cycle (1916-1922), provides Broberg a more accessible bravura piece, equally commanding in its percussive lyricism. The piece plays like a tempestuous etude, punishing in its relentless wrist action, but still managing, between dance and march, to evoke a sense of emotional confidence. The knotty progression has any number of Russian bells inscribed into its texture, and Broberg makes the most of the music’s glistening peals. 

Quite a debut for Steinway & Sons, I daresay.

–Gary Lemco

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