About this Recording
8.223372 - MEDTNER: Sonata-Ballade / Sonata Reminiscenza

Nikolay Medtner (1880 -1951)

Nikolay Medtner (1880-1951)

Sonata-Ballada in F Sharp Major, Op. 27

Sonata Reminiscenza, Op. 38, No. 1 (Zabïtïye Motivï, Cycle I, No. 1)

Sonata Tragica, Op. 39, No. 5 (Zabïtïye Motivï, Cycle II, No. 5)

Sonata-Idylle in G Major, Op. 56


From an early age Nikolay Medtner showed unusual ability as a pianist and a keen desire to compose. When twelve years old he entered Moscow Conservatory, where Alexander Taneyev declared, "Medtner was born with sonata form," and encouraged a career in composition, while others urged him to become a concert pianist. At the conservatory he studied piano with Vasily Il'ich Safonov, Who also taught Rachmaninov and Scriabin. Upon graduation Medtner received a gold medal in piano from Safonov, who said he would deserve a diamond medal if such existed.


Medtner quickly won recognition as one of the finest pianists of his generation, but the conflict continued between public performance, teaching and composition. In 1921 along with his friend Rachmaninov and others he chose voluntary exile abroad, returning to Russia only once on a concert tour in 1927. Settling first in France but finding his romantic music out of fashion there, he moved in 1935 to England, where he had a particularly enthusiastic following. Financial Support from the Maharajah of Mysore and the cooperation of the Gramophone Company led to the establishment of a Medtner Society in 1946. Although heart disease had forced his retirement two years earlier, Medtner recorded his three piano concertos, many solo pieces and some songs under the society's auspices, and as his health permitted, composition too occupied his last years.


Medtner was a profoundly religious man, and he approached music with similar reverence. He spoke of the mystery and the unexpected gifts of inspiration and of the necessity of unrestrained dedication to work. For him one without the other was pointless. In an age of artistic upheaval he asserted his independence by a lifelong aloofness from contemporary trends. He revealed himself from the beginning in a language fully formed and grounded in tradition. His idiom underwent a process not of stylistic evolution but of steady 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 his early works Schumann's influence is felt, even in matters of titles and notation. Before his period of mystical excess, 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 took place, even though the late works lack nothing in full-blooded, romantic virtuosity. Occasionally the melodic and harmonic intonations of Russian folk-music contribute to Medtner's musical identity, but his Russianness exists fundamentally on the psychological plane. He seldom employed what he called "ethnographic trimmings", and those very characteristics that are linked in the popular perception to "Russian music" - folk-like melody, brilliant colour, exoticism and rhythmic excitement - are notably absent from his work.


Medtner integrated melody, harmony and rhythm to a remarkable degree. He saw music as an indissoluble entity proceeding in a logical sequence from the bare simplicity of the tonic itself to the greatest complexities of sonata form. Melody is the basis of his construction: a theme is acquired intuitively, and the fulfilment of its potential becomes the composer's command. Though hardly innovative in itself, Medtner's melodic instinct, when linked to his consummate knowledge of form, can be compared to Beethoven's, and form, for both composers, was not a prefabricated mould in which to fit ideas but something created by the ideas themselves. Medtner saw also an intimate relationship between form and harmony: a fundamental harmonic sense is a necessary key to the mystery of musical construction. It follows that the nonfunctional harmony of impressionism, the clashes of polytonality and the sonic aggregates of atonality were alien to his musical thought. Medtner's harmonic language remained within the boundaries of nineteenth-century romanticism, albeit with a certain individuality, but its conservatism is more than offset by a powerful, often novel rhythmic instinct, which in its boundless variety is perhaps his most readily identifiable feature. Even as Medtner consistently sought balance in melodic construction, so too was he averse to asymmetry in barring. He rarely introduced time changes; nevertheless he achieved wholly individual complexities through all manner of syncopation, stressed weak beats, subtle shifting of accents and the cross-play of different rhythmic patterns. Rhythm became a vehicle of profound meaning with which Medtner expressed some of his most intimate thoughts.


The once fashionable epithet, "the Russian Brahms", is at best only partly appropriate. Truer analogies can be drawn to the spirit of Beethoven's late music and the fastidious craftsmanship of Fauré's. The inevitable comparison with Rachmaninov must be mentioned, even though Medtner, retiring by nature, never aspired to his friend's popular appeal. His contrapuntal and formal rigour and the deceptive ease of his most daunting technical feasts produce more of an intellectual than an emotional response, and he could not have written otherwise.


While many of his contemporaries were seeking new and novel means of musical organization, Medtner affirmed his commitment to the sonata, and his contribution to its on-going 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 of "protagonists," and all that transpires has some bearing on the original problem. Accordingly each sonata must be approached strictly on its own terms, for content determines form.


Medtner published fourteen sonatas, identified by key signature and opus number and in some cases by a descriptive title. He did not assign sequential numbers, and a somewhat complicated situation might be clarified by doing so; [No. 1] in F Minor, op. 5; Sonata-Triad: [No. 2] in A Flat Major, op. 11/1, Sonata-Elegy [No. 3] in D Minor, op. 11/2, [No. 4] in C Major, op. 11/3; [No. 5] in G Minor, op. 22; Sonata-Skazka [No. 6] in C Minor, op. 25/1; [No. 7] in E Minor, op. 25/2; Sonata-Ballada [No. 8] in F Sharp Major, op. 27; [No. 9] in A Minor, op. 30; Sonata reminiscenza [No. 10] in A Minor, op. 38/1 (from the first cycle of Forgotten Melodies); Sonata tragica [No. 11] in C Minor, op. 39/5 (from the second cycle of Forgotten Melodies); Sonata romantica [No. 12] in B Flat Minor, op. 53/1; Sonata minacciosa [No. 13] in F Minor, op. 53/2; Sonata-Idylle [No. 14] in G Major, op. 56.


The opening movement of the Sonata-Ballada, op. 27, was first published by itself in 1913, owing something of its form and emotional dimate to Chopin's Ballades. With the addition of the "Introduzione (Mesto)" and "Finale (Allegro)" the original "Allegretto" grew into the three-movement sonata, aptly named to reflect its romantic, narrative quality. The central movement, in fact an introduction to the finale, begins solemnly but is interrupted midway by a contrasting, song-like theme that is indeed taken from the first song, "The Muse," of Medtner's op. 29 Pushkin settings. Two diametrically opposed ideas form the crux of the finale, which begins with a theme reminiscent of Schumann that recurs in rondo-like fashion. Towards the end as a powerful unifying device, Medtner allows the sonata's initial theme to reappear majestically but gives the final word to his "Muse" melody.


The Reminiscenza, op. 38/1, and the Tragica, op. 39/5, belong to two cycles of Forgotten Melodies, and were composed in 1918 and 1920. Both are single-movement sonatas. The first is lyrical and restrained, and the second, decidedly more animated, nevertheless has a strongly lyrical vein underlying its dramatic pronouncements.


Medtner's final sonata, the Sonate-Idylle, op. 56, was composed in 1937 and has two movements. The brief and lovely "Pastorale (Allegretto cantabile)" is classical in its lucidity and discreet ornamentation, and its feeling of natural grace flows over into the more ambitiously developed "Allegro moderato e cantabile," which conveys an impression of luminous delicacy.


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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