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GP618 - MEDTNER, N.: Piano Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 2 (P. Stewart)
NIKOLAY MEDTNER (1880–1951)
“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 14 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 Along with a Sonata Vocalise for voice and piano and several unpublished scores, they span Medtner’s career, from early triumphs in Russia, to disillusionment and exile in England in the 1930s.
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 a respect for the old masters—Palestrina, Bach, Mozart and especially Beethoven—and stressed contrapuntal and structural command as essential to any composer’s craft.
Medtner graduated from the Conservatory in 1900 with a Gold Medal in piano. After achieving success in the Third International Rubenstein 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 teachers, 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.
The success of Medtner’s First Piano Sonata, Op. 5 (1904) brought the composer’s name to the attention of many prominent musicians of the day, the most important being Sergey Rachmaninov who became his lifelong friend and greatest supporter. Between 1904 and 1906, Medtner concentrated on shorter works for piano and several settings of poems by Goethe. One poem considered was Aussöhnung (Reconciliation), the conclusion of Goethe’s Trilogie der Leidenschaft, but instead of a vocal setting, Medtner decided to append the final stanza to the score of his own “trilogy of passion”, the Sonata-Triad, Op. 11.
All three verses of Aussöhnung are essential for understanding this work and the inner life of its composer:
Passion leads to suffering!—
But now, on angels’ wings the music soars,
And so the heart, made lighter, quickly sees,
The elderly Goethe’s infatuation with a young Polish pianist was the inspiration for Aussöhnung. It was a hopeless romance, and Goethe’s angst struck a chord with Medtner and his own romantic dilemma. Since adolescence, he had been in love with Anna Bratenskaya, a gifted violinist, and the feelings were reciprocated. Her marriage in 1902 to Emil, Medtner’s elder brother, was a devastating blow to the composer. (Eventually a sort of compromise was reached, Emil being fully aware and resigned to Anna’s true feelings. Their marriage was annulled in 1914, and by 1919 Nikolay and Anna were legally married.)
Passion, suffering, resignation to reality, redemption through music and love… Medtner’s Sonata-Triad translates into sound what Goethe’s poem expresses in words. The three, one-movement sonatas were nearly complete by mid-1906 when tragedy struck: the suicide of Anna’s brother, Andrey. Medtner was to dedicate his trilogy “to the memory of Andrey Bratenshi”, but only the second, Elegy, refers directly to the sadness of this event.
The first, marked Allegro non troppo, begins simply: a broken triad answered by a stepwise melody (the latter’s similarity to the famous hymn from Sibelius’s Finlandia, also in A flat major, is curious but surely unintentional). Hesitant at first, an anapestic rhythmical motif helps launch the sonata with confidence. Impassioned melody dominates, but some of the majestic, ceremonial nature of the preceding Dithyrambs, Op. 10 is present as well. The second theme, in E flat major, is one of Medtner’s most congenial and is indicated to be played giocondamente (joyously), a word one might apply to the entire sonata. Apart from a brooding moment in the development (sognando—dreaming), high spirits and self-assurance prevail. A brief coda (con brio e più mosso) brings the work to a resplendent close.
Sonata-Elegy is marked Andante molto espressivo. The plaintive first theme is stated after a short introduction, supported by a circle-of-fifths progression; Rachmaninov was to use the same harmonic device in the equally elegiac Lento from his Second Piano Sonata (1913). The most overt reference to the dedicatee comes with the second theme, a subtle allusion to Dies Irae, the Medieval Latin hymn associated with death (again evoking Rachmaninov, for whom this melody was a lifelong obsession). Here, it is soothing and gentle. Both themes are heard simultaneously in the recapitulation, and a molto appassionato climax is reached. The exuberant Coda (Allegro molto, doppio movimento) comes as a surprise; the Dies Irae motif dominates, but is completely transformed and the sonata ends positively, even triumphantly, in D major. (More than one commentator has referred to Medtner’s penchant for “jazzy” rhythms, and this coda is an excellent example.)
“Con passione innocente” is indicated for the third sonata (Moderato changed to Allegro moderato in later editions) and describes perfectly its winsome nature. One of Medtner’s most attractive compositions, its tonality is one he often chose for music of purity and reverence: C major. The first theme, bearing a certain likeness to Scriabin’s Fourth Piano Sonata from 1903, leads to a melody that will long remain in the mind of the listener (any similarity to a 1960s pop song is purely coincidental!). The exposition is repeated, then developed with new material which figures prominently in the Coda. The latter, marked Animato (più mosso) weaves all the thematic material into a rich tapestry, crowned with an exhilarating glissando to the top of the keyboard. A glorious conclusion to this trilogy of life-affirming, love-affirming works.
Dating from 1910–11, the two piano sonatas Op. 25 are studies in contrast. Despite sharing an opus number, they were not intended as an interrelated pair and were never performed as such by Medtner. The second, the formidable ‘Night-Wind’ sonata, is a monumental work that makes daunting demands on both performer and listener; the first, Sonata-Skazka in C minor, Op. 25, No. 1, is a masterpiece in miniature and considerably more audience-friendly. Dedicated to his cousin, composer Alexander Goedicke, its three short movements combine the formal design of a sonata with the narrative of a skazka—usually translated into English as Fairy Tale or Tale, though perhaps Legend is best. We are given no clue as to what story, if any, is behind this skazka, but such is its level of imagination, the listener can easily invent a storyline of his own.
Allegro abbandonamente is in turn reflective, capricious, and mysterious. The melancholy second theme, played in the left hand quasi violoncello, leads to an energetic climax and a passage of finger-twisting triplets. The material is briefly developed and, slowly gathering momentum, the movement ends in a blazing C major, the quasi violoncello theme now jubilant.
Andantino con moto consists of an exceptionally beautiful melody in E flat major lasting the full eighty-six bars of the movement. (Much has been made of its slight resemblance to the celebrated 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written twenty-three years later. While it is true that Sonata- Skazka was in Rachmaninov’s repertoire, his variation is, in fact, an inversion of Paganini’s theme; any similarity to Medtner’s melody is fortuitous). Gradually increasing in velocity and intensity, it reaches a quasi cadenza that climbs the keyboard’s heights before descending dreamily on a long dominant pedal. This ravishing moment is short-lived: an abrupt change of pace ensues… swirling lefthand scales, as if a wind had arisen out of nowhere, scatter the material like leaves blown into the night…
Allegro con spirito follows immediately, its character that of a vigorous, somewhat grotesque march (in 5/2 rather than 4/4). A repeated section introduces snarling bassoon trills à la Mahler and a cantabile version of the march. Then, a forlorn reminiscence of the second movement’s melody, reharmonized amid jerky, dotted rhythms. A noisy climax ends fortississimo on the lowest C of the keyboard, as of the tolling of a warning bell. The Coda is one of Medtner’s most masterly; the march as backdrop, themes from the first movement are recalled with breathtaking dexterity, the texture eventually thinning until nothing is left but a long E flat, sustained into infinity.
Medtner’s fourteenth and final piano sonata dates from his years of exile. In 1935, while temporarily residing in Paris, he had sketched what was to become Sonata- Idyll in G major, Op. 56. It was completed in London, in 1937, and first performed there by the composer on February 10, 1939. Dedicated to his fellow-exiles Lev and Olga Conus, it is in two concise movements. The opening Pastorale: Allegretto cantabile sets a bucolic scene, open-fifth drones and pedal points underlying the short, canonic introduction and disarming first theme. Two episodes follow, the first suggesting a Russian liturgical hymn—significantly, the Lutheran-born Medtner had recently converted to the Orthodox faith—the second in a more contemplative, searching vein. A brief coda integrates all the material and closes with a simple cadence. Allegro moderato e cantabile (sempre al rigore di tempo) is a full-fledged sonata-allegro, containing occasional backward glances to works of the composer’s past—the Skazka Op. 26, No. 2 in particular, whose crisp, dotted rhythms figure prominently in this movement. An exceptionally eloquent second theme, like its counterpart in Op. 11, No. 3, stays long in the memory; its magnificent ff reprise towards the end (molto sostenuto, maestoso) is one of the great moments in all Medtner. Gradually relaxing and fading away, the final movement of Nikolay Medtner’s final piano sonata ends with a glistening, magical pianississimo cadence: a deeply satisfying valedictory.
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