About this Recording
GP617 - MEDTNER, N.: Piano Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 1 (P. Stewart)
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Nikolay Medtner (1880-1951)
Complete Piano Sonatas • 1


Inspiration comes when thought is saturated in emotion, and emotion is imbued with sense” (Nikolay Medtner)

Part of the joy of Medtner is the joy of discovery: a large body of little-known but magnificent works of rare beauty and power. Three piano concertos, numerous miniatures, chamber music, over 100 songs and fourteen piano sonatas, the most significant achievement in this genre by any major composer since Beethoven. Along with a Sonata Vocalise for voice and piano and several unpublished scores, they span Medtner’s career, from early triumphs in Russia, to disillusionment and exile in England in the 1930s.

Recordings of Medtner’s music are few and far between, and some are based on editions that contain misprints and other errors. The present four-volume series aims to present each sonata as faithfully as possible, consulting the composer’s manuscripts, first editions and revisions, instructions and corrections as communicated to his students and, when they exist, his own recordings. As much of Volume I dates from the turn of the twentieth century, a restored Steinway from that era has been used for this recording—most appropriately, an instrument performed upon by Medtner himself in Montreal in 1929.

Nikolay Karlovich Medtner was Moscow born-and-bred, although his ancestry was German. As a child he showed musical promise, and studied piano with his mother until his acceptance into the Moscow Conservatory at the age of twelve. Medtner’s teachers during these years included Vasily Safonov for piano, Anton Arensky for harmony and Sergey Taneyev for counterpoint, the latter having a particularly strong influence on his musical development. Taneyev instilled in all his students Nikolay Karlovich Medtner was Moscow born-and-bred, although his ancestry was German. As a child he showed musical promise, and studied piano with his mother until his acceptance into the Moscow Conservatory at the age of twelve. Medtner’s teachers during these years included Vasily Safonov for piano, Anton Arensky for harmony and Sergey Taneyev for counterpoint, the latter having a particularly strong influence on his musical development. Taneyev instilled in all his students

Medtner excelled at the piano but was instinctively drawn to composition. A number of youthful attempts, some completed, some fragmentary, exist in manuscript in Moscow’s Glinka Museum Archives. Among them is what might have become a full-blown sonata had the teenaged Medtner not left it in the form of two brief movements. Commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the composer’s death, the Moscow firm Muzika published, in 1981, a Sonatina in G minor that dates from 1898 or possibly earlier. The edition is missing nuances and contains obvious errors, but familiar aspects of the composer-to-be can be found: a gift for melody, rhythmical complexity with a penchant for syncopation (more than one commentator has referred to Medtner’s “jazzy” rhythms) and, even at this stage, skill in motivic development. It is unknown why this attractive music was not taken up again, though Medtner may have felt self-conscious about the more-than-occasional hint of Tchaikovsky. The most Tchaikovskian movement is the second, a scherzo whose trio comes close to plagiarizing the Pas de deux from Swan Lake (in true Medtnerian fashion, its melody is found to contrapuntally “fit” atop that of the Scherzo).

Medtner graduated from the Conservatory in 1900 with a Gold Medal in piano. After achieving success in the Third International Rubinstein Competition in Vienna, a career as a concert pianist seemed inevitable. A European concert tour was planned but abandoned when, against the advice of his parents and teacher, he decided to eschew the life of a travelling virtuoso and dedicate himself to his true calling: composition. Medtner continued performing throughout his life, but with rare exceptions—he was a celebrated interpreter of Beethoven—played only his own works in public.

His first published works consisted of short piano pieces and songs, all revealing qualities of invention and originality. The Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 5, is much more than that. Rachmaninov once remarked that all composers make mistakes when they are young, but that “only Medtner, from the beginning, published works that would be hard to equal in later life”. This sonata, his first large-scale composition, is one such work. Conceived over a period of several years, an early draft of the first movement is testimony to the struggles it caused. According to the Medtner scholar Francis Pott, who studied this manuscript, the original key was C minor, the themes were presented in a different order, the development section “overloaded with elaboration, threatening to collapse under its own weight…” (Interestingly, the F minor tonality eventually decided upon is also that of the first sonata of Beethoven, Medtner’s idol, as well as the Appassionata, which Medtner loved and even recorded.)

By August 1903 the sonata took its definitive shape. The first movement follows classical sonata-allegro form: exposition of themes, their development, recapitulation, etc. Family lore has it that the impassioned second theme was a musical “portrait” of Anna Bratenshi, the love of Medtner’s life who, during this time, was engaged to his older brother (she eventually did marry Emil Medtner, in October 1902). Its characteristic descending line bears a strong resemblance to an oft-used melody of Schumann that symbolized estrangement and yearning for his beloved Clara Wieck; this is perhaps no coincidence, as Medtner had several works of Schumann in his concert repertoire and would have been well-acquainted with “Clara’s theme” and its personal significance.

The restless Intermezzo that follows is obsessed with a time-honoured “musical question” associated with many composers over the centuries, notably Wagner as the “Fate” motif in Der Ring des Nibelungen. One might interpret this as an expression of Medtner’s anguish over his love for Anna, and the acceptance of their fate. In the Moderato-Andante that forms a link to the third movement, tortured sequences of the Fate motif are interrupted by the lowest note of the piano struck fff, like the tolling of a warning bell; the motif, now “upside-down”, is then heard four times successively as if posing unanswerable questions.

Largo divoto, as the tempo marking implies, has a spiritual dimension. In the slow, stately rhythm of a sarabande, its melodies are redolent of Russian Orthodox chant, the most affecting of which is marked pietoso. The Fate motif is also prominent, and Anna’s theme can be found buried in the texture. Another Moderato-Andante link leads to the finale, Allegro risoluto; again in strict sonata form, the material is based entirely on that of the previous movements. Its headlong, manic pace relaxes only with Anna’s theme in the guise of a chorale, marked religioso. The development includes a Lisztian fugue, again with Anna’s theme much in evidence though transformed into a chromatic, menacing caricature of itself. A sudden reappearance of the questioning Fate motif and a distorted reminiscence of Largo divoto add an element of uncertainty and doubt, but this is only momentary. Amid the pealing of bells, now celebratory, the work ends with Anna’s theme stated triumphantly. In light of future developments regarding Medtner and Anna, how prophetic this would prove to be!

Although the first of Medtner’s sonatas is considered a transitional work, close acquaintance and repeated listening reveals extraordinary craft: every note and detail has its purpose or, in Medtner’s words, its “destiny”. Championed and performed throughout Europe by the celebrated Polish pianist, Josef Hofmann, it brought him his first international attention, and in the spring of 1904 was published by MP Belaïeff of Leipzig. The present recording is of this rare first edition. (Medtner later revised the work, harmonically altering several passages, adding or removing nuances and other indications, and refining the texture.)

In the years between the First Sonata and the composition of his Tenth, the Sonata Reminiscenza in A minor, Op. 38 No. 1, Medtner became well-established in the Russian musical world; his friend Rachmaninov once described him as “the greatest composer of our time”. He continued his career as best he could—composing, performing, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory—throughout the horrors of World War I, the October Revolution and subsequent civil war. As with all Muscovites, Medtner and his family suffered tremendous privations, but one bright event occurred: his brother agreed to a divorce, and Nikolay and Anna, having shared an illicit, guilty love for two decades, were finally married in 1919.

Three sets of piano pieces, Zabitiye Motivi (Forgotten Melodies) date from this time, the title referring to themes that were jotted down over the years but then “forgotten”. The Op. 38 cycle begins with Sonata Reminiscenza, today among Medtner’s most performed and recorded works. It was completed in 1920 and first played in public by Medtner on a freezing winter’s evening, by candlelight, the audience shivering under blankets and furs to keep warm. It too is autobiographical: one can even detect Anna’s theme from the First Sonata hidden between the lines of the opening phrase, a haunting passage which recurs throughout the cycle as a kind of motto, a “reminiscence” that is melancholic, regretful, bittersweet. Alexander Goldenweiser wrote of this single-movement work: “The spirit of true poetry and profound internal significance makes it one of the most remarkable achievements of Medtner’s art”. There is despair, even tragedy, but the prevailing mood is one of sadness, perhaps resignation to the fact that a Russia he knew and loved was lost for ever. Another prophecy, for Medtner was shortly to become an exile for the remaining thirty years of his life.

Paul Stewart

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