MEDTNER: Violin Sonata No. 3 in E Minor “Sonata Epica”; Violin Sonata No. 1 in B Minor – Chloe Hanslip, violin/ Igor Tchetuev, p. – Hyperion

by | Sep 10, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

MEDTNER: Violin Sonata No. 3 in E Minor, Op. 57 “Sonata Epica”; Violin Sonata No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 21 – Chloe Hanslip, violin/ Igor Tchetuev, piano – Hyperion CDA67963, 68:39 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The romantic, intricate music of Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) continues to elude easy categorization; and any attempt to shackle Medtner with the sobriquet “the Russian Brahms” would have infuriated his hard-won individualism.  The complications of Medtner’s style involve Russian folk music to an extent – especially in the skazki, or whimsical character pieces – but no less informed by polyphonic and polyrhythmic counter currents, plainchant, and Debussy by way of his British admirers, like Bax and Ireland. The influence of Russian poetry and the keyboard pedagogy of Sergei Taneyev factors into the Medtner aesthetic.  Medtner remained faithful to the standard of clarity of purpose he learned from a life-time of classical performance. Above all, he considered himself Beethoven’s student. Reflecting upon his approach “in defense of the fundamentals of musical art,” the composer later wrote (in Muse and Fashion) of the essence of theme, melody, form and rhythm, and of the “principal meanings” and “unwritten laws that are the foundation of musical language.” In later years, Alexander Glazunov called Nikolai Medtner “an artist guarding the eternal laws of art.

The unjustly neglected violin sonatas of Medtner the composer considered important aspects of his musical legacy. The Violin Sonata No. 3 in E Minor has a history bound up with his brother Emil and his brother’s wife, Anna Bratenschi, with whom Nikolai had fallen in love and engaged in extended ménage a trois. This 1938 so-called Sonata Epica indeed projects huge proportions, lasting some forty-seven minutes in Hanslip’s performance. The first of the four movements, the Introduzione: Andante meditamente—Allegro, while opening with static bell chimes, assumes a restless, syncopated and contrapuntal momentum laced with moments of intimacy and tender reflection. Besides the fugal intensity of the writing, Medtner offers extended moments of modal wandering and sudden affective shifts that make his music as elusive as it is harmonically intriguing.

The jittery Scherzo might be construed as a tango, rife with jazzy and jaunty asymmetrical phrases and accents, clearly meant to suggest an improvisation. The dazzling-display antics of both principals testify to the brilliant comfort Medtner exhibits in his writing. Another tender melody of real value manages to emerge, the sound darkly modal, more reminiscent of Faure than of Brahms. The Andante con moto reveals Medtner’s capacity for home-grown doxology, Russian folk and religious ardor which takes its cue from the Sonata’s opening, static chords in the first movement. If any music speaks for Hanslip’s rarified art, this movement will suffice. If Russian chant and ecclesiastic feeling might be spliced to Beethoven’s fierce emotional counterpoint, this Finale: Allegro molto accomplishes a rare eclecticism. A barbaric dance in triple time evolves through a series of rapid, baroque-sounding runs that culminate in counterpoint to the Christ is Risen motif that haunts the third movement. Later in the procession, Hanslip must perform a meditative quasi cadenza just before the music catapults forward to a decisive conclusion. The integration of virtuosic violin playing has its own counterpart in Tchetuev’s disciplined piano part, never for a moment less than uncanny in its fidelity to Hanslip’s concept.

Something of the Stravinsky classicism infuses the 1910 Violin Sonata No. 1 in B Minor, in three movements marked – like Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto – as a triptych of dance gestures: Canzona; Danza; and Ditirambo. The opening effect Mednter wants canterellando or “humming,” and the liquid barcarolle effects suggest – especially as marked con fluidezza –  Faure. The Danza in G Major likes to play loose with bar lines, a sauntering effect in divisions of three plus twos, a more melodic Bartok. The Allegro scherzando section takes off with deliberate bravura, and the angular writing could be mistaken for Szymanowski. The last movement, marked Festivamente, implies a Dionysiac revel in an unstable B Major rife with Rachmaninov’s favorite bell effects. Elements of cyclicism appear in the form of previous motifs, but now an augmentation of the note values adds a grandeur we know from Mussorgsky. Hanslip and Tchetuev realize Medtner’s grand and grandiose design with ardent affection and unstinted polish. This music deserves a larger audience.

—Gary Lemco

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