Medtner Piano Concertos, etc

Author: 
Bryce Morrison

Medtner Piano Concertos, etc

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3
  • Sonata-Ballada
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3

A short time ago the appearance of three records of Medtner piano concertos within a few weeks (one with the added bonus of the Sonata-Ballade, a substantial solo item) would have been inconceivable. Once there was virtually nothing, now there is a positive deluge, and there are even further tantalizing prospects on the horizon. The opportunity, too, to reassess the work of a notoriously elusive composer in performances which are in one instance more than worthy and in the other transcendental, is deeply gratifying.
Medtner's neglect is both unfortunate and explicable. A lofty idealist, he pursued his romantic vision, swinging neither to the right of Russian conservatism nor to the left of radical chic. His Teutonic love of order and discipline combined with a no less typically Russian love of floridity and expansiveness, and for many the results proved strangely enervating and unsatisfactory being neither one thing nor the other. For his detractors his music was little more than ''a declaration of love in the language of the First Empire'' suggesting a morbid refusal to move with the times. Even in his native Russia, as Geoffrey Tozer tells us in his lively notes, Medtner is often set by examiners for sight-reading tests, the cynical assumption being that students will be unfamiliar with the work of one of the country's most distinguished composers and who will in any case be usefully tripped by many of Medtner's often deceptively simple demands. Nevertheless Medtner has always had his champions, notably Moiseiwitsch, Gilels and Horowitz, Earl Wild and Hamish Milne and now, Geoffrey Tozer and Nikolai Demidenko.
Let me say at once that Geoffrey Tozer's two-disc set is an invaluable addition to the catalogue not only in its satisfying completeness but as an example of unflagging energy and often stylish musicianship. Here, surely, is a gargantuan task accomplished with admirable strength and lucidity. Tozer clearly loves this music and conveys affection in every bar. And yet fine as these qualities undoubtedly are, they prove insufficient. Medtner, as much as any composer, requires a very special advocacy, an unwavering commitment expressed in a truly blazing keyboard temperament and pianistic resource combined with an innate sense of Russian lyricism. For despite many unsatisfactory tags (''the Russian Brahms'' was one Medtner particularly disliked) and suggestions of cosmopolitanism, Medtner remains indubitably Russian. And it is this central elixir or quality which Demidenko conveys to perfection in performances as searingly intense as they are ardently lyrical. In page after page of these superficially diffuse and rambling scores his playing pulsates with a truly extraordinary fire and brilliance. Listening to other pianists you have your doubts concerning the music's ultimate quality but with Demidenko all possible sense of cliche or staleness is swept into oblivion. From him you would never think for one second that you were listening to music that is ''strangely twice told''. The opening of the Second Concerto's Toccata is launched with a super-charged, molten bravura (his tempos in rapid movements are significantly faster than Tozer's) followed by a second subject caressed with the most insinuating ease and grace. Listen to Demidenko in the following al rigore di tempo (2'44'') as an example of his razor sharp rhythm or try 9'35'' where his all- Russian virtuosity creates a truly vertiginous effect, almost as if one was being suddenly pitched down a mountainside.
Similar wonders and felicities abound throughout the Third Concerto, arguably the most endearing of the three. Demidenko's way with the opening theme, with its soaring melody and churning undertow is altogether more urgent than Tozer's, and the sweep and glamour of his pianism at, say, 4'00'' are hard to resist. In page after page his sheer agility allows him an expressive freedom and verve that bring every bar vividly and authentically alive.
On the debit side the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra sound less well equipped for their admittedly daunting task (Demidenko's abrupt changes of tempo and direction keep everyone on the qui vivre) than the London Philharmonic under Neeme Jarvi who are allowed an altogether more relaxed and convivial form of music-making. The recordings in both instances are outstanding (particularly the Chandos), the balance very much as you would hear it in a live concert-hall performance. Old and cherished recordings of the First Concerto by Igor Zhukov, of the Second by A. Shaskes and of the Third by Tatiana Nikolaieva are at last dazzlingly surpassed and replaced, though Nikolaieva's performance is, not surprisingly, haunting and authoritative. An album of solo items from Demidenko is promised from Hyperion and EMI will shortly be issuing an invaluable disc of the composer partnering some of his most distinguished colleagues and friends; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Oda Slobodskya in the songs, Benno Moiseiwitsch in the Round Dance; riches indeed!
But if you want to hear Medtner's music purged of all possible superfluity or convention, vitalized in a way that previously seemed impossible, then Demidenko is your man. I have not heard a more thrilling recording of a virtuoso romantic concerto since Michelangeli's legendary EMI disc of Rachmaninov's Fourth Concerto. Above all you find confirmation of the words, quoted on Hyperion's excellent sleeve, ''being a Russian is a duty. For Medtner coming to England did nothing to change that. The Moscow nights, the Russian spring, the basilicas and bards of his young manhood; such was his heritage, a chalice of dreams and memories to hold for always. Prince of truth, he was one of Russia's great sons.'''

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