Andante con moto [9'15]
Finale: Allegro molto [13'12]
Danza: Allegro scherzando [5'58]
Ditirambo: Festivamente [7'41]
The great composer of piano music Nikolai Medtner also wrote three violin sonatas (and other works for the instrument), two of which are recorded here.
The ‘Sonata Epica’ is, as its title suggests, one of the most ambitious and colossal works in the repertoire, and without doubt one of the most important violin sonatas of the twentieth century. It draws deeply on Medtner’s Russian heritage, with intimations of orthodox chant and folk dances. Its continual syncopations show why Medtner was fleetingly regarded as one of Russia’s most progressive composers during the first decade of the twentieth century, yet also contrast with an essentially conservative harmonic idiom. The Sonata No 1 is more understated and reminiscent of Fauré.
Chloë Hanslip has proved herself an eloquent performer of the lesser-known Romantic violin repertoire, displaying rare commitment and resonant vitality.
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Ridiculous as it may sound, I believe Brahms never dreamt of such music … I may have a long way to go to approach Brahms; he is a colossal master! … I am speaking merely of my muse, which everyone for some reason has decided to consider the sister or even the daughter of Brahms, which I cannot accept at all … (Nikolai Medtner)
Nikolai Medtner’s frustrated resentment emerges from a letter written to his older brother Emil in 1920. In 1913 the critic Vyacheslav Karatygin had patronized Medtner as ‘a Russian German’ and ‘a native Brahmsian’. There is no clear evidence whether Karatygin himself first hung the ‘Russian Brahms’ albatross around Medtner’s neck. Nor can his motives be free from suspicion: there was little love lost between Karatygin and Emil Medtner. Emil was himself a sententious writer on music and a would-be creator whose ideals were thwarted by a lack of any form of matching artistic talent. He played out his frustrated ambitions vicariously, exerting a Svengalian influence upon Nikolai until his own death at Dresden in 1936. This was compounded by a strange emotional triangle. In his teens Nikolai had fallen for Anna Bratenschi, having been enlisted by unsuspecting parents as a useful chaperon when Anna had begun to receive the attentions of Emil, whom she eventually married in 1902. The following year Anna discovered Nikolai’s true feelings, and he hers. When the pair confessed the situation to Emil, in an apparently selfless gesture he acquiesced, but only upon condition that the situation never be revealed to the Medtner parents, Karl and Alexandra. Accordingly a bizarre ménage à trois persisted from 1903 until Alexandra’s death in 1918. Nikolai and Anna finally married in June 1919. Alexandra actually learned of the true position in 1909, but insisted that the matter remain smothered beneath a cloak of bourgeois respectability.
Nikolai’s complex ancestry was part-German on both sides, and the passion of his father (the affluent director of a lace factory) for Germanic culture had resulted in an artistic education shaped as much by Goethe and Beethoven as by Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. Emil, the eldest of five sons, may have possessed the most powerful intellect of all the Medtner brothers, and it was he, too, who most strongly inherited the paternal devotion to Germanic culture. Passionately immersed in Nietzschean philosophy, in the works of Goethe and, later, in Jungian psychology, he was a proponent of Wagner in Russia and also a leading figure within the poetic ‘Symbolist’ movement. The picture takes on a more sinister depth through Magnus Ljunggren’s biography of Emil, The Russian Mephisto (Stockholm, 1994): ‘Living through his younger brother, he gave free rein to secret dreams of grandeur to compensate for a growing sense of frustration … [He] later contended that he sacrificed … his plans to become a conductor so that Nikolai could afford to study at the [Moscow] Conservatory … Henceforth … he regarded it as his mission to “conduct” Nikolai’s musical career, controlling his professional development at the same time as he magnanimously abandoned his own artistic ambitions.’
Exiled permanently from Russia in October 1921, Nikolai and Anna were to endure hard years in Germany and France before reaching England, where they settled in 1935. Seven years after Nikolai’s death on 13 November 1951, Anna returned to Moscow to oversee publication of the complete twelve-volume Medtner Edition. Buried in her homeland, she lies far from the husband from whom, in life, she was inseparable; while, in what might appear an uncomfortable piece of symbolism, Emil sits forever between them: the urn containing his ashes rests on top of Nikolai’s grave in Hendon Cemetery in North London.
The Russian Brahms sobriquet has been lastingly contagious. Not only has it since been echoed in the published opinions of a swathe of critics and commentators, but Karatygin attached it also to Glazunov, bracketing him with Medtner as a ‘mere analogue’ of Brahms. Glazunov, moreover, was a composer whom Medtner revered but whose music bears little true resemblance to his own. Whereas Glazunov’s chamber and orchestral outputs have been aptly characterized by Leslie Howard as possessing an essentially balletic frame of reference derived from Tchaikovsky, Medtner’s music—despite its intermittent preoccupation with myth and legend—is first and foremost self-referential in its acute awareness of human transience, memory and loss. Perhaps his best-known work is the monolithic Sonata-Reminiscenza for solo piano which opens his first book of Forgotten Melodies (Vergessene Weisen), Op 38. One might term it ‘music in the future-perfect tense’, in that it was Medtner’s final work before his departure from Russia, and the recollection which it embodies is an anticipated one, though no less haunting for that.
The violin sonatas were works which Medtner himself thought important, and whose emotional content invites speculation since Nos 1 and 3 are dedicated respectively to Anna and to the memory of Emil (No 2 bears an inscription to Medtner’s cousin, the composer Alexander Goedicke). The three works contain some of Medtner’s finest ideas, yet also typify in places the potential problem which confronts a listener, and perhaps partially explain the composer’s neglect until recent years. Detractors have often accused him of ‘thinking with his fingers’, assuming the callisthenic elegance of his keyboard writing to spring from a willingness merely to turn physically gratifying improvisation into notated matter. In reality, manuscript drafts show how Medtner would produce reams of painstaking, self-denying sketches in two- and three-part motivic counterpoint before allowing himself to invest them with the slightest element of pianistic freedom. However, counterpoint in the context of any duo sonata is something of a two-edged sword. Such polarized instrumentation flies in the face of composite effect, while the music demands effort from its listeners, denying itself the vivid opulence of a ‘big tune’ in favour of a more oblique mode of discourse which may seem less immediately fulfilling. In posterity this has done Medtner a disservice; yet his intricate music possesses an arguably unique capacity to ‘get under the skin’ of the receptive, attentive listener, as reaction to its gradual re-emergence in recent decades has amply shown.
Like many of Medtner’s works, the Violin Sonata No 1 in B minor germinated gradually from ideas sketched years earlier. Its first two movements (the former adorned with one of its composer’s more exotic Italian injunctions: canterellando means ‘humming’) were heard on their own in 1910, Medtner having failed to complete a finale. The work opens with a restrained barcarolle-like rhythm. Characteristically, it demonstrates a willingness to keep its primary ideas perpetually in view while modifying them so that they take on more tangential tonalities and harmonic colourings. Intriguingly, its air of elusive understatement suggests an affinity to a composer with whom Medtner is seldom compared, Gabriel Fauré. Indeed, the end of this movement is loosely reminiscent of a mélodie from Fauré’s opus 23, Les berceaux.
The G major Danza typifies two of Medtner’s salient idiosyncrasies: in its first section, the habit of repeating a pithy idea whose length is at odds with that of the bar, so that immediate (in this case, whimsical) tension and disjunction arise between actual and expected accentuation; and, in the rapid ensuing section, a predilection for groupings of three quavers in contradiction to the prevailing crotchet pulse. Here, the pattern is generally arranged as 3+3+2, thus ‘correcting’ matters at prescribed intervals. In many works, however, Medtner happily let the threes prevail for longer stretches, creating anarchic and dramatic conflicts between the ostensible rhythmic ‘vessel’ and what was poured into it. The movement ends with a brief reprise of both sections in turn.
Beginning with imposing bell effects, the B major Ditirambo admits more wistfulness than either its title (denoting a classical dance or hymn in honour of Dionysus) or its direction Festivamente might imply, and shows the composer’s fondness for synthesizing earlier material as well as introducing new, to create a satisfying escalation of both craft and rhetoric. Rhythmic sleights-of-hand from the preceding movements surface periodically in ‘augmented’ form, their note-lengths doubled to suggest progressive broadening towards some grand peroration. However, the Sonata ends quietly, in a fashion echoed many years later at the conclusion of Medtner’s final piano sonata, the Sonate-Idylle.
‘Whoever heard of a short epic?’ was Medtner’s lapidary response to a suggestion that the Violin Sonata No 3 in E minor ‘Sonata Epica’ might be a little lengthy. He had begun it in Paris, a year before Emil’s death in 1936 and just before his own ‘third emigration’ to England, but there was a hiatus before further work on the piece ensued in 1938. By then it had become an act of remembrance. Nikolai himself has been remembered by a friend and colleague in Russia, Alexander Ossovsky, as ‘unusually attractive; infinitely modest, delicate, shy, like a little girl, with a sensitive and lofty soul … in truth “a man not of this world”, being in no way adapted to practical life’. It was Anna who took care of all mundane concerns on his behalf, and Emil to whom—for better or worse—he had always looked for counsel and the wisdom of experience. ‘He was like a father to me’, wrote the bereft composer, who bore a lasting burden of guilt over the disintegration of his brother’s marriage.
The Sonata Epica opens with a series of static chords evoking the chiming of bells, and subsequently hints at Russian plainchant. Despite adhering in its essentials to normal sonata structure, the ensuing Allegro maintains an indefatigable rhythmic momentum, its exploration of myriad contrapuntal possibilities effectively subsuming the lineaments of the form beneath what feels and sounds like a far more organic outpouring. Its continual displacements, syncopations and metrical sleights-of-hand show in part why Medtner was fleetingly regarded as one of Russia’s most progressive composers during the first decade of the twentieth century, yet also contrast with an essentially conservative harmonic idiom, that disjunction being perhaps the most distinctive feature of his voice overall. The fugal intensity here engenders music of a consistent and yet oddly unquantifiable emotional temperature, much in the way that the so-called ‘doctrine of the affections’ held sway over complete movements in Baroque music.
The Scherzo recalls the more skittish aspects of the first sonata’s Danza, while also offering a few localized suggestions why Medtner might have come to be compared with Brahms (in broader terms the comparison fails to hold water). The music is a calculated risk in that it both loosely resembles the first movement and follows straight on from it; but this movement as a whole is leavened by felicitously asymmetric phrase lengths, the occasional interruption of a tango-like dance rhythm and a kind of artless candour in its major-key episodes (something which could occasionally become unwittingly arch or cumbersome in one or two of the composer’s less inspired works, but which here pays off handsomely).
The third movement takes the Sonata’s opening as a point of fresh departure, transposing and redirecting its chords as if to suggest old knowledge transformed by the wisdom of experience. Modal and, at first, melodically frugal in contrast with its dense texture, it conjures the immemorial history and vastness of its composer’s recollected homeland, yet one is conscious also of these as a metaphor or prism through which Medtner gazes back over an arduous, testing life, sharing its vicissitudes and the pain of exile one last time with the brother whom he so greatly revered. (Aptly if also startlingly, part of the Sonata’s introduction first appears in a sketchbook dated 1898.) A quasi-ecclesiastical theme, arising midway through the movement and reminiscent of the slow movement in Glazunov’s Seventh Symphony, prepares the way for an overt borrowing of Russian chant (the melody Christ is Risen) in the Finale.
The last movement, in triple time, demonstrates that strange eclecticism, arising perhaps from his mixed ancestry and culture, whereby Medtner can be intensely Russian one minute, the next barely at all. The barbaric dance with which it opens would not be out of place in a symphony by Bax (whom, incidentally, Medtner had met in 1930). This proves to be an introduction balancing that of the first movement, whose longer-term processes are mirrored and implicitly recapitulated as counterpoint and rhythmic displacement again predominate. The Christ is Risen chant eventually receives ‘double stretto’ treatment (whereby three entries of the same motif overlap, creating intense conflicts of accentuation). Disciplined as ever, Medtner integrates into his counterpoint not only a memorably idyllic secondary theme in the major key, but also elements of the introduction. The second theme recurs in due course as a rapt meditation marked quasi cadenza, affording necessary repose before the headlong coda, which recalls Beethoven in its determination to escalate ever higher before a peroration of terse abruptness.
Just after Medtner’s death in 1951, Gerald Abraham wrote of his music how ‘… in its restrained, almost austere romanticism, its emotional depth, as in its cross-rhythms, its frequently complicated harmonic and polyphonic texture, and its highly developed craftsmanship, it resembles Brahms’s, and Medtner has in consequence been nicknamed The Russian Brahms. Which is absurd. Medtner … is purely—Medtner. Still he has in common with Brahms … this, too: that he has always been a sturdy rock of conservatism amid the confused and turbid currents of harmonic “progress”.’ As Medtner’s foremost British exponent Hamish Milne wrote in 1999, by now this elusive, individual music ‘can rightfully claim the more highly prized epithet—timeless’.
Francis Pott © 2013