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Hyperion Records

CDA67221/4 - Medtner: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Recording details: August 1996
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: September 1998
Total duration: 277 minutes 36 seconds


'A set that does deserve celebration. Indispensable to all lovers of Medtner's subtle and enriching art … superlatively played and presented. Such writing positively demands a transcendental technique and a burning poetic commitment, a magical amalgam achieved with delicacy, drama and finesse by Marc-André Hamelin' (Gramophone)

'Hamelin and everyone involved with the production of this release deserves the highest praise' (Fanfare, USA)

'I was breathless with admiration' (Hi-Fi News)

'Merci de contribuer aussi magistralement à la redécouverte de Nikolai Medtner' (Répertoire, France)

'Ce coffret est un monument de l'histoire du disque, comme il n'en pas eu beaucoup depuis une décennie' (The Samedi Culturel)

The Complete Piano Sonatas
Allegro  [12'25]
Largo divoto  [8'08]
Allegretto  [10'17]
Finale: Allegro  [8'56]
Danza silvestra  [3'40]
Scherzo: Allegro  [4'27]

'I repeat what I said to you back in Russia: you are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time.' – Sergei Rachmaninov (1921)

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this set.

Medtner's piano compositions are arguably the last area of great Romantic piano repertoire to be discovered. His music is difficult, both technically and intellectually, and does not 'play to the gallery', which may explain its neglect. But once his world has been entered it proves endlessly fascinating and compelling, his work growing in stature with every hearing until one is left in no doubt as to its overwhelming effect.

Central to his output are the 14 Piano Sonatas (though the title covers a multitude of structures and sizes) and here for the first time we have the complete cycle recorded by one artist.

Other recommended albums
'Grainger: Piano Music' (CDA66884)
Grainger: Piano Music
'Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas' (CDA67131/2)
Scriabin: Complete Piano Sonatas

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
I repeat what I said to you back in Russia: you are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time. (Sergei Rachmaninov, 1921)
One of those composers who are classics in their lifetime. (Ernest Newman, 1928)

In the history of Russian music Medtner is a forlorn figure. Despite the plaudits of eminent musicians and critics, and the sometimes fanatical enthusiasm of his devotees, it was Medtner’s fate to remain undiscovered by the musical public at large and forgotten or ignored by all but a small band of enterprising performers. In recent years, however, his star seems at last to have begun to rise, and the present collection of works, built around one of his most substantial achievements—the cycle of fourteen piano sonatas, recorded here as an integral set for the first time—, eloquently demonstrates the particular strengths of a composer whose genius, in a more just world, would surely have long since been generally recognized.

Medtner’s personality, the circumstances of a difficult life, the spirit of the times in which he lived and the particular nature of his art all contributed to the eclipse of a career which began with the greatest promise. One of the most brilliant piano pupils of the legendary Vasily Safonov at the Moscow Conservatoire (Alexander Scriabin and Josef Lhévinne were two others), Medtner graduated in 1900 with the institution’s Gold Medal and in the same year won a honourable mention in the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Vienna. At this point, on the threshold of a potentially brilliant future as a concert pianist, he peremptorily renounced the career for which his upbringing had prepared him and instead, with the support of his mentor Taneyev, decided to devote himself to composition, an occupation he had practised since infancy but for which he had little formal training. Henceforth his occasional appearances on the concert platform would essentially be showcases for his own works.

Medtner readily found a publisher for his first compositions and in Russia, particularly in Moscow, began to build up a considerable following, his status confirmed by the award of the Glinka Prize in 1909 for three groups of Goethe songs and in 1916 for two of the piano sonatas (Op 25 No 2 and Op 27). In the same period, before the outbreak of the First World War, two other great Moscow composer-pianists, who had graduated from the Conservatoire in the very year in which Medtner had enrolled there and who had already made reputations for themselves abroad, were reaching the peak of their popularity: Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Lacking the mystique of the one and popular appeal of the other, Medtner was from the first overshadowed; outside of Russia his music was virtually unknown.

Then came war and revolution. Unable to reconcile himself to the Bolshevik regime, in 1921 Medtner left Russia, returning only briefly six years later for a triumphant series of concerts. He settled first in Berlin and later in Paris, but made little impression in either capital. Although concert tours of North America in 1924/5 and 1929/30 aroused greater public interest, it was in Britain, which Medtner first visited in 1928, that he found the most responsive audiences outside his homeland and where, in 1935, he was to settle permanently. Throughout, undaunted by difficult, sometimes desperate, circumstances, he continued to pursue his mission as a composer with an almost religious dedication.

Just when Medtner was beginning to establish himself in his new surroundings, the outbreak of the Second World War brought fresh problems, for income from concerts and lessons and royalties from his German publisher both suddenly ceased. In 1940, with the blitz on London, he found sanctuary with friends in Warwickshire, but two years later he was struck down by the first of a series of debilitating heart attacks, which all but brought to an end his concert career, though fortunately not his activity in the recording studio, His final years were brightened by the munificence of the Maharajah of Mysore, under whose patronage he was able to record many of his works for HMV—though even this enterprise proved in some respects to be ill-starred, for the recordings appeared in the dying years of 78s and, with the arrival of long-playing records, soon ceased to be available. None of them was reinstated in the domestic catalogue until recently, and the wider dissemination of his work was further hindered by the notorious elusiveness of copies of the sheet music.

The Medtner cause was not advanced by the composer’s reputation as a prickly musical reactionary. As he made plain in his book The Muse and the Fashion (1935), an expression of his musical creed, he believed in eternal, God-given laws of art enshrined in the music of the masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and above all in the immutable sovereignty of tonality and consonance. The works of his close contemporaries Schoenberg and Stravinsky, even of Reger and Strauss, he viewed as heretical perversions. Yet ironically, though not straying outside its bounds, Medtner employed traditional musical language in a recognizably personal and sometimes forward-looked way (as in his use of unusual metres and cross-rhythms) and his early compositions were stylistically fully abreast of the times. However, he came into the world fully armed as a composer and, as this chronological selection of his works demonstrates, his style developed remarkably little throughout his career. Thus it became his fate, as time passed, to be marooned in a backwater by the maelstrom of twentieth-century musical history.

Medtner’s musical personality was the product of two cultures: his profoundly Russian character and Moscow musical upbringing were tempered by the Teutonic intellectual inheritance of his family, immigrants from northern Europe several generations before him. Medtner admired Goethe no less than Pushkin; he loved Tchaikovsky but revered Beethoven and Wagner. If in spirit and not infrequently in idiom his music proclaims his Russian nationality, in matters of craftsmanship and musical design his roots can be traced back to the Austro-German classical masters.

As with Chopin and Alkan, the piano was the focus of Medtner’s musical activity. All of his compositions not for piano solo—three concertos, a quintet, works for violin, and 106 published songs—nonetheless contain a part for the instrument. The fourteen piano sonatas, notwithstanding the claims of the better-known cycles by Scriabin (eight years Medtner’s senior) and Prokofiev (eleven years his junior), are certainly numerically the largest and arguably the most interesting and musically satisfying contribution to the genre by any Russian. Extraordinarily varied in scale and mood, they reveal in their remarkable structural integrity a grasp of large-scale musical architecture possessed by few of the composer’s compatriots. In this connection, a characteristically Medtnerian device is to demonstrate at the end of a sonata that all its themes, though apparently widely different, have a common origin.

Taneyev was astonished by Medtner’s intuitive grasp of counterpoint and famously described him as being ‘born with sonata form’. Both of these talents naturally find their fullest expression in the sonatas. The inexhaustible ingenuity with which the composer reveals different facets of his themes through their interplay has, to some, made his music seem unnecessarily complex or ‘academic’, but then Medtner is not for casual listening; his music has a density of thought that demands, and abundantly repays, the familiarity that comes from repeated hearing—the very privilege a recording confers.

Sonata in F minor Op 5
Medtner’s first published sonata dates from 1901–1903, though the Intermezzo is a reworking of a Moment musical written in his student years, and overall the work is not yet fully representative of the mature composer. Even so, when in November 1902 Medtner played the first of its four movements to Josef Hofmann, the famous pianist went so far as to describe the work as the most important of all the contemporary piano compositions known to him, ‘a perfect whole’.

As elsewhere in Medtner’s work, the music’s formal design also has a spiritual dimension, here hinted at by the composer’s expression marks. Thus the turbulent soul-searching of the first movement, neither resolved by its end nor relieved by the ensuing quietly menacing Intermezzo, is followed by a Largo divoto, which, as the heading suggests, is a kind of prayerful meditation, a spiritual struggle from uncertainty to hope in prayer (a passage marked pietoso), through further uncertainty to a fervent climax in further prayer (con entusiasmo). At the end of the movement confidence ebbs, but the consequent agitation of the first theme of the Finale is assuaged by the measured and pious tones of the second, marked religioso, which proves to be a major-key version of the second theme of the first movement. The material is worked out at length in the development, where the composer’s contrapuntal and fugal skills are given full rein. In the recapitulation a final interlude of uncertainty and dejection is swept away by the affirmative restatement of both themes and the pealing of bells in jubilant celebration. The struggle has been won.

Zwei Märchen Op 8
In 1904 Medtner completed these first two of what was to become his best known and most extensive series of piano miniatures, the Märchen, a German title almost certainly taken from German Romantic poetry where it was used for imaginative tales of every kind. Medtner’s later Märchen were published with the addition of the Russian and French equivalent titles (Skazki and Contes), but the English version, ‘Fairy Tales’, which began to be applied only from the time of the composer’s first visit to an English-speaking country (America) in 1924/5, misrepresents the nature of these pieces. It is not just a matter that fairies are conspicuously missing from Russian popular mythology but also that, as the great emotional intensity of the second of the present examples illustrates, the imaginative world Medtner conjures up far transcends mere folklore. As Boris Asafyev remarked: ‘These are not descriptive tales or tales relating adventures of some kind. These are tales about personal experiences, about the conflicts of a man's inner life.’

The two Op 8 Märchen share the same key (C minor) and some of the same material, most obviously the sequence of five cadential chords with which both pieces open and close. The first has a malevolent air throughout, with the music finally slipping sinisterly away into darkness (tenebroso). The second, a much more complex composition, is cast in sonata form. The opening theme is an example of Medtner’s rhythmic inventiveness, the division of its 8/8 metre into 3, 3, 2 syncopated across the bar line charging it with enormous energy and impetus. This and the plaintive second theme are developed in order to a central climax, the nature of whose culmination is indicated by a sequence of characteristically idiosyncratic expression markings: pregando (‘prayerfully’), minaccioso (‘threateningly’), soffocando (‘as though choking’), and finally haotico (‘chaotically’). After the recapitulation a tempestuous coda, rounded off by the introductory cadence, curt and final, completes a composition of extraordinary originality and power, one that utterly confounds the notion of Medtner’s being nothing more than an unregenerative reactionary. No wonder the work was much admired by the young Prokofiev.

Sonaten-Triade Op 11
This group of three one-movement sonatas was dedicated to the memory of Andrey Bratenshi, the composer’s brother-in-law who committed suicide in 1906, though they were not written as a response to this event but were already nearing completion at the time. Published separately, they were not intended necessarily to be played as a set, nor did the composer himself ever do so. Although the Sonata in D minor bears the subtitle ‘Elegy’, and its lovely principal theme—like that of the third sonata—is consolatory in character, the overall mood of these works is sunny, as is emphasized by the vitality and optimism of all three codas. These sonatas mark an advance on their predecessor not only by the affecting lyricism of their themes, but also, as was foreshadowed in the second of the Op 8 Márchen, by their more concentrated and intricate musical thought.

Sonata in G minor Op 22
Performed by Prokofiev and Horowitz, recorded by Moiseiwitsch and Gilels, this one-movement work, completed in 1910, is the Medtner sonata which has so far achieved the most currency, and deservedly so, for not only does its powerful drama strongly appeal to the emotions but its coherence as a perfect organic whole on a large scale is also profoundly satisfying to the intellect. As Heinrich Neuhaus wrote: ‘The sonata’s trajectory is felt from the first to the last note as one uninterrupted line.’ All the thematic material is integrated and never ceases to grow organically right up to the massive coda, which is a true culmination in both synthesizing and intensifying what has gone before, with two pages of characteristically Medtnerian contrasting rhythms in the right and left hands. The sonata’s daring tonal scheme—a rising sequence of alternately minor and major thirds—is further evidence of Medtner’s originality in his use of traditional musical language and design.

Sonata-Skazka in C minor Op 25 No 1
Eight of the remaining nine sonatas bear either an epigraph or, as here, a title indicating their general nature. The present work, otherwise called by its composer, reversing the order of priority, Märchen-Sonate, combines elements of both genres of the titles, being a sonata in layout, with the first of its three movements in regular sonata form, and a Märchen (or Skazka) in substance, particularly in the monothematic following movements: the second has a melody remarkable for anticipating Rachmaninov’s famous eighteenth variation of his ‘Paganini’ Rhapsody, written twenty-three years later; the third, a stern march in 5/2 time, incorporates reminiscences of the preceding movements.

Sonata in E minor ‘Night Wind’ Op 25 No 2
Misleadingly appearing from its numbering to be a mere appendage to the modestly scaled Sonata-Skazka, Medtner’s Sonata in E minor is in fact the composer’s most extended work in the genre, a monumental epic which taxes to the full the capacities of performer and listener alike and which some have claimed to be the greatest piano sonata of the twentieth century. It is headed by an epigraph from Tyutchev’s poem Silentium, in which the poet sees chaos as man’s natural inheritance:

What are you wailing about, night wind, what are you bemoaning with such fury? What does your strange voice mean, now indistinct and plaintive, now loud? In a language intelligible to the heart you speak of torment past understanding, and you moan and at times stir up frenzied sounds in the heart!
Oh, do not sing those fearful songs about primeval native Chaos! How avidly the world of the soul at night listens to its favourite story! It strains to burst out of the mortal breast and longs to merge with the Infinite … Oh, do not wake the sleeping tempests; beneath them Chaos stirs!

The sonata divides into two thematically linked Allegro movements, their general character seemingly corres­ponding to the two stanzas of the poem. The first movement—perhaps the most extended piece of music in 15/8 time in existence—is in sonata form, its structural divisions indicated by the repeated descending triplet figure with which the work opens, like a call to attention. The second movement, a massive free improvisation on the material of the sonata’s introduction, rushes along in headlong torrent, pushing the expressive resources of the piano to the limit. There is little respite from the night­marish frenzy, for even in the interludes an undercurrent of anxiety is always present. Eventually the coda is reached; fragments of all the themes are heard over a tonic pedal and the scene of chaos gradually fades from view, the music at last vanishing into thin air with two swirling arpeggios.

Sonata-Ballada in F sharp minor Op 27
The composer revealed that this sonata was based on a poem by Afanasy Fet describing Christ’s temptation in the wilderness—further evidence of the spiritual element in his work and the loftiness of his inspiration. There are three movements, joined without a break. The first opens with a joyful song celebrating the radiant beauty of spring. This implies the immanence of a Creator and the need for religious faith, something seemingly denied by the second subject, restless and anxious in spirit, the conflict reflected in the cross-rhythm of the accompaniment. The struggle continues in the development, and although the buoyant mood of the opening returns, it is utterly dashed in the turbulent coda which is brought to a despairing conclusion by a series of angry chords.

Both the brief second movement, Introduzione, and the Finale are headed by quotations from the poem itself: ‘Satan stole away’, ‘And the Angels came’, charting the triumph of righteousness over evil. The malevolent ‘satanic’ theme of the Introduzione is gradually rebuffed as the movement proceeds by fragments of another melody, one that is at last heard in full as the serene second subject of the Finale. One of Medtner’s most beautiful inspirations, this was clearly special for the composer; he used it again in two other works with religious overtones, a setting of Pushkin’s poem The Muse and the Piano Quintet. After a stern fugal episode based on the satanic theme, the music culminates in a joyous restatement of the second theme and the sonata’s opening, against a background of pealing bells.

Sonata in A minor Op 30
This tauntly constructed single-movement work, dating from 1914, was known by the composer’s friends as the ‘War Sonata’, and certainly in its turbulent drama and general atmosphere of menace it may be said to have mirrored the times in which it was created. The music’s surprising ferocity, jagged rhythms and astringent harmonies are only briefly assuaged by the gently wistful second subject. The work is crowned by one of Medtner’s most compelling and headlong codas, at the end of which, once again, with the struggle won, bells ring out in celebration.

Vergessene Weisen Opp 38 and 39
From June 1919 until October 1920, seeking refuge from the turmoil of the aftermath of war and revolution, Medtner lived on a friend’s dacha at Bugry, in the remote countryside sixty-five miles south-west of Moscow. Since his earliest days as a composer it had been his habit to jot down in notebooks musical ideas as they came to him; these he kept for possible later use, many of them having long since slipped his memory. At Bugry Medtner went through these notebooks, quarrying the material for three cycles of piano pieces to which he gave the general name Forgotten Melodies, with separate titles for each item in (sometimes errant) Italian. The first and second cycles, recorded here, respectively open and close with a sonata.

The eight pieces of the first cycle are given a certain coherence as a group by a number of thematic cross-references, particularly to the cycle’s motto, the melodically memorable opening paragraph of the single-movement Sonata-Reminiscenza. The ‘recollection’ of the work’s title, perhaps Medtner’s reflection on his own difficult life and imminent departure from his homeland, is a melancholy one. After the exposition of the sonata’s two main subjects, rounded off by the motto theme, the development intensifies the mood of haunted anguish, culminating in two arpeggiate cries of despair. The prevailing gloom is only briefly lifted by a brighter new theme unexpectedly introduced into the recapitulation, after which the motto of recollection is heard once more, bringing the work to a pensive close.

Two dances follow: Danza graziosa, in which the high spirits of the syncopated dance melody are unexpectedly dampened by the stem and very Russian theme of the middle section; and the smiling Danza festiva, said to be an impression of a village festival and possibly inspired by a painting by the Flemish artist Teniers. The same bells that ring out in the opening bars also launch the fourth piece, the plaintive Canzona fluviala (‘River Song’), in which there is no obvious connection between content and title beyond the flowing accompaniment.

Danza rustica, with its simple melody over a hypnotic drone bass, seems to evoke a country scene on a lazy summer’s day, while Canzona serenata (‘Night Song’), opened and closed by the motto of recollection, is a plangent song, whose vaguely Latin air and consecutive thirds in the harmonization of its melody make it a distant cousin of Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Song.

In the penultimate piece, Danza silvestra (‘Forest Dance’), the gnarled syncopation of the first theme, perhaps conjuring up a picture of malevolent wood-sprites, gives way in the central section to a lyrical dance. At the end, another passing reference to the motto of recollection leads without a pause to Alla Reminiscenza: Quasi coda, which rounds off the cycle in a mood of calm detachment with the theme with which it began, now at last in the major key.

The second cycle of Forgotten Melodies consists of five pieces, the first and last pairs linked thematically. The opening Meditazione is one of Medtner’s most potent inventions, a disquieting study of tormented introspection in which tension is relieved only in the very last bars by an unexpected resolution into the major key. The following Romanza is no less disturbing, the same dark brooding transformed into a haunted waltz. Primavera (‘Spring’), on the other hand, proclaims the composer’s exultation in the year’s rebirth. It was completed in March 1920 under the stimulus of the arrival of a Russian spring with its dramatically rapid thaw of snow and bracing air, a time of year Medtner especially loved.

There are hints that Canzona matinata (‘Morning Song’), carefree in its outer sections but melancholy in the middle, depicts the morn of life, youth, with its generally sunny but occasionally black moods, in contrast to the struggles and tragedies of later life. The latter theme is implicit in the final work of the cycle, the Sonata tragica, which the composer always insisted should be preceded by a performance of the Canzona matinata. A remarkable intensity of emotion is concentrated in its single movement. Typically for Medtner, the two apparently contrasting main themes, the first tragic and launched by what sounds like a blow of fate, the second consolatory, prove to be one and the same in different guises. In the development there is an almost literal restatement of the sombre central theme from the Canzona matinata but there is little relief. Tension mounts in the recapitulation, and the work moves inexorably towards a devastating coda, which concludes with the blow of fate with which the sonata began.

Sonata Romantica Op 53 No 1
In four connected movements, the Sonata Romantica dates from 1930, when Medtner was living in Paris (where the music of his bête noire, Stravinsky, was very fashionable). In the atmosphere of the time, the ‘romantic’ of the title, echoing the Romanza first movement, can perhaps be seen as a gesture of defiance by one of the old guard against modernists who rejected the expression of emotion in music. The sonata was written during a desperately difficult period in the composer’s life, the cheque for his recent North-American tour having bounced, leaving him unable to pay his debts (a predicament from which he was rescued by the ever-generous Rachmaninov). These worries seem to be mirrored in the work’s prevailing mood of apprehension and quiet menace.

Sonata Minacciosa Op 53 No 2
The Sonata Minacciosa, completed the following year, gives explicit and extended expression to the sense of threat underlying the preceding work. Medtner called it his ‘most contemporary composition’, explaining that it reflected ‘the threatening atmosphere of contemporary events’, though it was also probably as much affected by his own recent misfortunes. In one long movement, which exhaustively treats only a small amount of material, the work arguably shows Medtner at his most rigorously intellectual. In particular, the development section incorporates an elaborate fugal episode, and is remarkable as much for the range of tonalities through which it passes as for its rhythmic freedom. In a tailpiece to the coda, the composer ends the sonata in characteristic fashion with an outburst of defiant optimism.

Sonate-Idylle Op 56
Medtner completed his last piano sonata in London in October 1937. Dismayed by the technical difficulty of so much of his music, which in effect precluded its sale to the majority of amateur pianists, the composer’s publisher had asked him to write some less demanding—and potentially more marketable—works. This sonata was one of the pieces that resulted and, as implied by its title, its mood is one of happy innocence. It is cast in two movements, both in the key of G major. The formal simplicity and brevity of the first, a ternary structure lasting barely three minutes, contrasts with the elaborateness of the second, a sonata movement with three themes, the last a sunny Medtnerian hymn that is brought back for the work’s climax.

It is strangely touching to think of the exiled Russian composer working on this sonata, evoking an Arcadian world, in the incongruous surroundings of the bustling North London suburb of Golders Green. Scarred by the vicissitudes of a troubled life, dispirited by the triumph of the modernism in art he so much despised and the neglect of his own work, Medtner, despite everything, never ceased composing, the faithful servant of his muse, uncompromising in his artistic integrity. To the end he remained, as Glazunov described him, ‘the firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art’.

Barrie Martyn © 1998

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