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8.223371 - MEDTNER: Sonatas Opp. 22 and 25, Nos. 1 and 2

N ikolai Karlovich Medtner (1879 -1951 )

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner (1879-1951)


Nikolai Karlovich Medtner was born in Moscow on 5th January 1880 (24th December 1879 according to the old style or Julian calendar). His parents were of German descent, though their families had lived in Russia for several generations. There were a number of musicians on the maternal side, and Medtner received his first piano lessons at the age of six from his mother. At ten he began studies with his uncle, Fyodor Karlovich Goedicke, who was a professor of piano at Moscow Conservatory. The young pupil would have nothing of "children's music" but demanded Bach, Mozart and Scarlatti, no doubt to his uncle's delight.


From a very early age Medtner showed a keen desire to compose, and at the age of twelve he entered Moscow Conservatory , where he studied piano, theory and general science. Alexander Taneyev, his counterpoint teacher, declared, "Medtner was born with sonata form", and he continued to encourage a career in composition even while others urged him to become a concert pianist. During his last three years at the conservatory, Medtner studied piano with the brilliant Vasily Il'ich Safonov, who also taught Scriabin and Rachmaninov. When he left the conservatory in 1900, he received a gold medal in piano, and Safonov, in presenting the award, announced that Medtner deserved a diamond medal if such existed.


Thereafter Medtner quicky won recognition as one of the finest pianists of his generation. The years saw a continuing conflict. however, between public performance, teaching and composition. In 1921 along with his friend Rachmaninov and other compatriots. Medtner left Russia and went into voluntary exile abroad. He returned there only once on a concert tour in 1927. Going first to Germany, then around Europe and to America on concert tours, he settled in France in 1925. There a fellow expatriate, Alexander Glazunov, upheld him as "the firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art" - hardly a ringing endorsement in 1920s Paris. Finding his music out of step in France and feeling no sympathy with Parisian musical fashion, he moved in 1935 to England, where he had already been made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music seven years earlier and where he enjoyed a particularly enthusiastic following.


In 1946 the financial support of the Maharajah of Mysore and the cooperation of the Gramophone Company led to the establishment of a Medtner Society . Though heart disease had forced his retirement in 1944, Medtner recorded his three piano cancertos, many solo pieces and some songs under the society's auspices. Composition and recording occupied his last years as health permitted, and he worked with dedication until his final heart attack five days before his death on 13 November 1951.


Medtner was a man of deep religious conviction, and he approached music with similar reverence. He spake of inspiration as mysterious, its gifts as unexpected, and of the necessity of unrestrained dedication to work: without inspiration work is pointless, yet without work inspiration is nothing. Born to an age dominated by upheaval in the arts, he asserted his independence by actively opposing the artistic climate. He summed up his credo by quoting I Corinthians 14:8-9: "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known w hat is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air."


The quotation explains Medtner's lifelong aloofness from cantemporary trends. His utter sincerity revealed itself from the very beginning in a musical language fully formed and grounded firmly in tradition. From then on Medtner's idiom underwent a process not of stylistic evolution but of ever deepening maturation. Ernest Newman called him "one of those composers who are classics in their lifetime."


Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are Medtner's true ancestors. In the early works Schumann's influence is felt, even in matters of titles and notation. Before the period of his mystical excesses. Scriabin too exerted an influence, and the harmonic language of The Divine Poem and the Fourth Sonata seeped into Medtner's consciousness. From 1906 a gradual stylistic refinement and simplification can be discerned, even though the late works lack nothing in full-blooded, romantic virtuosity.


Occasionally the melodic and harmonic intonations of Russian folk music bear witness to Medtner's dual cultural heritage and certainly contribute to his musical identity , but his Russianness exists fundamentally on the psychological plane. Medtner seldom availed himself of what he termed "ethnographic trimmings", and those very characteristics which are linked in the popular perception to "Russian music" - folk-like melody, brilliant harmonic and orchestral colour, exotidsm and rhythmic excitement - are notably absent from his work.


It is difficult to think of melody, harmony and rhythm as discrete entities in Medtner's music, for they are integrated to a remarkable degree. The composer saw music as an indissoluble unity proceeding in a logical sequence of events from the bare simplicity of the tonic itself to the greatest complexities of sonata form. To him music was basically song, and melody is the basis of his musical construction. A theme is acquired intuitively - not invented, and the fulfillment of its potentiality becomes the composer's command. Though hardly innovative in themselves, Medtner's melodic ideas assume an individuality that is more than adequate proof of genius, inextricably linked to a consummate knowledge of form, his melodic instinct, stylistic differences aside, must be compared to Beethoven's. With both composers form is not a ready-made mould in which to pour ideas but something created by the ideas themselves.


There exists also an intimate relationship between form and harmony: a fundamental harmonic sense is for Medtner a necessary key to the mystery of musical construction. It follows that the nonfunctional harmony of the impressionists, the clashes of polytonality and the meaningless sound aggregates of atonality were alien to his musical thought. Thus Medtner's harmonic language remained within the boundaries of nineteenth century romanticism, and though harmony is perhaps his least distinctive feature, that is not to say that he did not employ the rules with a certain individuality. One characteristic is a darkness in the lower keyboard that recalls the Russian aspect of his nature.


Any lack of harmonic originality is more than compensated by Medtner's powerful, often novel rhythmic instinct. Its boundless variety is for some his most readily identifiable feature. Just as he consistently sought balance in melodic construction, so was he averse to asymmetry in barring. He rarely introduced time changes. Nevertheless he achieved remarkable and wholly individual complexities through all manner of syncopation, stressed weak beats, subtle shifting of accents and the cross-play of different rhythmic patterns in the right and left hands. Never an end in itself, rhythm becomes here a vehicle of profound meaning, with which Medtner expressed some of his most intimate thoughts. As an idealist he placed least importance on sonority, which he considered the material adjunct to an essentially spiritual art. Sound had no significance of itself but acquired meaning only through service to melody, harmony and rhythm.


Though it used to be fashionable to call Medtner "the Russian Brahms", that epithet is at best only partially appropriate. It is in fact with the spirit of Beethoven's late music that a truer analogy can be drawn. In technical perfection one can cite a correspondence between Medtner's and Faure's fastidious craftsmanship. Each man can rightly be called a "composer's composer". Finally, the inevitable comparison with Rachmaninov must be mentioned, even though Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, a fervent admirer of both, deemed such comparison "pestilential nonsense" to be dismissed with contempt. Retiring by nature, Medtner never aspired to the sort of popular appeal his friend enjoyed. His contrapuntal and formal rigour and the deceptive ease of his most daunting technical feats produce an intellectual rather than a primarily emotional appeal. Ever true to his innate nobility , Medtner could not have composed in any other fashion.


While many of his contemporaries were seeking new and novel means of musical organization, Medtner affirmed his commitment to the sonata - that venerable form enriched through the centuries by the likes of Scarlatti, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Medtner's contribution to its ongoing development lies in an increased sense of organic unity. The Medtner sonata, whether in one or more movements, develops as an organism from a single argument contained in two main themes or "protagonists", and all that transpires subsequently has some bearing on the original problem. Accordingly each sonata must be approached not in the usual manner but strictly on its own terms, for content determines form.


In all Medtner published fourteen sonatas, identified by key signature and opus number and in some instances by a descriptive title. He did not assign sequential numbers, and a somewhat complicated situation might be clarified by doing so now.


Sonata [No. 1] in F Minor, op. 5 (1903)


Sonata [No. 2] in A Flat Major, op. 11/1 (1904-06)

Sonata-Elegy [No. 3] in D Minor, op. 11/2 (1907)

Sonata [No. 4] in C Major, op. 11/3 (1908)

Sonata [No. 5] in G Minor, op. 22 (1909-10)

Two Sonatas:

Sonata-Skazka [No. 6] in C Minor, op. 25/1 (1910-11)

Sonata [No. 7] in E Minor, op. 25/2 (1911)

Sonata-Ballada [No. 8] in F Sharp Major, op. 27 (1912-14)

Sonata [No. 9] in A Minor, op. 30 (1914-15)

Sonata reminiscenza [No. 10] in A Minor, op. 38/1 (from the first cycle of Forgotten Melodies, 1918)

Sonata tragica [No. 11] in C Minor, op. 39/5 (from the second cycle of Forgotten Melodies, 1920)

Two Sonatas:

Sonata romantica [No. 12] in B Flat Minor, op. 53/1 (1931-32)

Soanta minacciosa [No. 13] in F Minor, op. 53/2 (1931-32)

Sonata-Idylle [No. 14] in G Major, op. 56 (1937)


Few of Medtner's sonatas are cast in clearly designated individual movements, and whether a given sonata is a single-movement structure embodying the traditional characteristics of a multi-movement sonata or whether it is a succession of linked individual movements is a question open to dispute. Given the quest for unity and the propensity for content to dictate form, the most realistic approach to a question whose argument can be an exercise in futility is to regard the sonatas as existing along a continuum, characterized at one extreme by the unequivocally multimovement sonata and at the other by the indisputably unitary structure, with every gradation in between.


By that reckoning the Sonata in G Minor, op. 22, displays a high degree of integration and best qualifies as a single-movement structure with a fast-slow-fast design, analogous to the classical three-movement pattern but unified into an indissoluble wholeness by a lack of discernible junctions and by the intimmate thematic relationship of the fast outer parts. Probably composed in 1909-10, the stormy music is notable for its complex harmony, openly spaced chords and rhythms reminiscent of Scriabin's third and fourth sonatas. A simplified description of the formal plan clarifies the structure as follows: after an introduction, "Tenebroso, sempre affrettando", comes a deftly moving "Allegro assai". An interlude, "Andante lugubre", occupies the central position and is succeeded by another "Allegro assai", based on the opening material and serving as a recapitulation-finale.


Similar in length, the Sonata Skazka in C Minor, op. 25/1, dates from 1910-11. Also played without pause, it falls into three readily defined sections and can be described as in three connected movements with cyclical references. In contrast to the agitated fifth sonata, the Sonata-Skazka is at the outset relaxed and lyrical, even reflective, building to an impassioned climax during the course of the first movement. The central "Andante con moto" has a distinctive theme that foreshadows by some twenty years Rachmaninov's immortal eighteenth variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Russian word Skazka is usually translated as "fairy tale", though "legend" might be a closer rendering and one that characterizes this sonata's dreamy opening and vaguely folkish, march-like finale. The main body of this last movement alternates 5/2 and 3/2 meters with a 3/4 interlude that brings back the lyrical theme of the slow movement.


"One of the major pianistic masterpieces of modern times" is how Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, a daunting composer in his own right, described Medtner's Sonata in E Minor, op. 25/2, composed in 1911. Here Medtner created a work of epic breadth, gigantic and bewildering architecture. and fierce techninal and interpretative demands. Dedicated to Rachmaninov, it is headed by verses from Tyutchev that ask the night wind why it wails and laments so frantically and admonishes it not to awaken the dormant forces of primordial chaos. Its great length allowed for wider emotional scope than either of the two preceding, compact sonatas could convey, and its artistic success demanded of Medtner a heroic discipline, which he met admirably. Indeed, this seventh sonata is universally regarded as his masterpiece. Here we have a well unified three-movement structure. The first part, beginning with a Slavic theme pregnant with all manner of developmental possibilities, follows sonata form and is unified by a 15/8 time signature. Moments of Fauré-like calm appear occasionally but scarcely allow the music's furious momentum to slacken. Another sonata structure emerges in the final section, a fantasy-reprise of the opening themes that brings coherence to this mammoth work. The sonata has been called one of the most enigmatic works in the piano literature, but bearing in mind Medtner's dictum that every theme has a destiny, one will find the efforts at comprehending this mighty score well rewarded.


Ádám Fellegi


The Hungarian pianist Ádám Fellegi was born in Budapest in 1941. Graduating from the Budapest Academy in 1963, three years later he went on to win first prize at the International Cultural Centre in Vienna, where he took part in master classes given by Paul Badura-Skoda, Alfred Brendel and Jörg Demus. In the same year he won a special prize at the Budapest Liszt-Bartók Competition for his interpretation of contemporary Hungarian music. In 1974 he won the Artur Rubinstein prize in Rio de Janeiro. Fellegi has appeared on the concert platform throughout Europe, in Russia and in the United States of America, and has recorded for many of the major broadcasting stations. For Hungaroton he has recorded works by major twentieth century composers, including new Hungarian music that he has commissioned. He was awarded the Liszt Prize by the Hungarian government in 1981.

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