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Hyperion Records

CDA67936 - Medtner & Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas
Ivan the Great Bell (1915) by Aristarkh Vasilievic Lentulov (1882-1943)
Recording details: December 2012
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Stephen Johns
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: September 2014
Total duration: 71 minutes 59 seconds

Medtner & Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas
Campanella: Pesante, minaccioso  [3'45] FREE DOWNLOAD TRACK
Scherzo: Allegro  [4'34]
Allegro agitato  [9'57]
Non allegro  [7'32]
Allegro molto  [6'42]

Steven Osborne has become increasingly admired for his performances and recordings of Russian Romantic piano music, playing with a remarkable level of authority and a rare combination of technical ease, tonal lustre and idiomatic identification. Here he presents an impressive selection from two masters who lived and worked contemporaneously. Both were renowned concert pianists, and both wrote superbly for their instrument. Yet their reputations could not be more divergent. Rachmaninov utterly loved; Medtner only now becoming rehabilitated.

Medtner’s ‘Sonata Romantica’ was composed in 1930 in Paris, and first performed by the composer in Glasgow the following year. It was the twelfth of his fourteen piano sonatas. Not only its title but also the expressive content of its four movements, played without a break, make it virtually a manifesto for Medtner’s art. Apart from sonatas, Medtner’s favourite genre was the Skazka (‘Tale’). It has been pointed out that the usual English translation of ‘Fairy tale’ does not do justice to the power and depth of many of these pieces, some of which almost approach Chopin’s Ballades in their expressive scope. The two Skazki of Op 20 recorded here were composed in 1909.

In a recent performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No 2, a great Romantic showpiece, Osborne was described by the Washington Post as ‘a master of momentum and color, a wielder of power and a sure navigator through huge landscapes: his Rachmaninov was both coherent and daringly free’.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Although their reputations could scarcely be more disparate, Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Medtner make an exceptionally interesting, like-minded pairing. Both were renowned concert pianists, and both wrote superbly for their instrument, unleashing hordes of notes that nevertheless fall gratifyingly under the fingers—at least expert ones, after patient learning. As composers, both were trained in a strict academic tradition, not least under the champion of polyphony in Russia, Sergei Taneyev; yet both rebelled against that schooling and could count themselves as largely self-taught. Both expressed anxiety about the length of their works—Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, dedicated to Medtner, prompted an interesting exchange of letters on the topic. Both remained faithful to the aesthetics and styles they had grown up with (Chopin, Schumann and Liszt being their most conspicuous shared influences), and as a consequence both were hostile to new musical currents around them, not least among their principal fellow-Russian émigrés, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Neither could stand the Bolshevik regime that turned their world upside-down, yet both experienced intense longing for the homeland.

In their spoken and written pronouncements Rachmaninov was the more diplomatic, the more prepared to cast himself as at fault: ‘I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien’, he wrote. ‘I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.’ By contrast, Medtner was unrepentant to the point of self-righteousness, dedicating an entire book, The Muse and Fashion (1936), to the excoriation of his modernist contemporaries (and in the process drawing extravagant praise from Rachmaninov). For those already less than enchanted by his music, this diatribe merely confirmed that he was hopelessly out of touch.

In other ways, too, Medtner was his own worst enemy. He turned his back on the kind of performing career that Rachmaninov (albeit with many reservations) embraced. But Medtner also had his share of bad luck. A lucrative concert tour to North America in 1929–30 was rewarded with a bounced cheque; at that time only Rachmaninov’s generosity kept him financially afloat. Failing to make a decisive impact in Paris or Germany—any more than he did on a return visit to Russia in 1927—Medtner finally settled in London in 1935. But the War cut off his income from concerts and teaching, also severing connections with his German publishers. The few recordings he was able to make near the end of his life, thanks to the patronage of the Maharajah of Mysore, were on 78s, and he did not live to enjoy the dawning age of long-playing records.

One of Medtner’s projects that remained unrealized at the time of his death was to record the 'Sonata Romantica', Op 53 No 1. Composed in 1930 in Paris, and first performed by the composer in Glasgow the following year, this was the twelfth of his fourteen piano sonatas. Not only its title but also the expressive content of its four movements, played without a break, make it virtually a manifesto for Medtner’s art. Cast in B flat minor—a favourite key for Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Balakirev, as well as being adopted by Rachmaninov for his second sonata—the opening Romanza soon engulfs its lyrical impulse in troubled swirls of figuration (the score is peppered with agitato and tranquillo markings). Following the pattern of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata, the scherzo then goes another step flatwards, to E flat minor. Here the commonest marking is leggiero (lightly), offsetting the pesante opening and the tumultuoso climax. The Meditazione is no less exacting in its demands—espressivo ma semplice, legatissimo, sordamente (muted) as well as una corda all appear in the first bar. The main character of this slow movement is the gentle lilt imparted by dotted rhythmic figures, making it a close cousin to the second theme in the first movement of Rachmaninov’s second sonata. If Medtner’s finale at first seems rather less personal in its thematic invention, that is partly because its strategy will be to combine its own material with recalls of the previous movements, in an almost obsessive-compulsive tying together of threads.

Apart from sonatas, Medtner’s favourite genre was the Skazka (‘Tale’), of which there are some three dozen in his output, mostly collected in groups of two to six. It has been pointed out that the usual English translation of ‘Fairy tale’ does not do justice to the power and depth of many of these pieces, some of which almost approach Chopin’s Ballades in their expressive scope. Any programmatic sources—rarely made explicit—are in art-literature or the Bible, rather than Russian folk tales.

The two Skazki of Op 20 were composed in 1909, at a high-point in Medtner’s Russian career. This was the year he was awarded the Glinka Prize (for his Goethe song-settings), appointed to the advisory board of Koussevitsky’s newly founded publishing-house, the Édition russe de musique, and offered a professorship in piano at the Moscow Conservatoire (a position he actually held only at sporadic intervals). He once suggested to a pupil that the first Skazka, again in B flat minor, should be played ‘as if appealing to someone with a fervent entreaty’. The longer second Skazka is headed ‘Campanella—a song or tale of a bell, not about a bell’, and its implacable downward scales make for a fascinating comparison with the bell-like sections in Rachmaninov’s second sonata.

Rachmaninov left Russia four years before Medtner in December 1917, barely a month after the Bolshevik Revolution, and eventually settled in the United States. Separation from the homeland heightened an innate predisposition to nostalgia, and in later years he publicly bemoaned the fact that the land of his childhood and early fame was the only one in the world that remained closed to him. Had he lived into the era of Khrushchev’s so-called Thaw, it is conceivable that, like Stravinsky in 1962, he would have been invited to return as a visitor. As it was, the fact that he had been co-signatory in 1931 to a letter to the New York Times condemning Stalin’s regime put paid to any chance of such a visit.

Rachmaninov’s background had been a privileged one. His father and paternal grandfather, both of them musically gifted, had army careers. His mother was the inheritor of five country estates, one of which (near Novgorod, about 120 miles south of St Petersburg) was to be the future composer’s childhood home. There he and his brothers and sisters were educated by private tutors and governesses. Seemingly also marked out for an officer’s life, the young Sergei Vasilyevich soon displayed musical gifts sufficiently startling to persuade the family to invest in piano tuition from a graduate of Petersburg Conservatoire (one Anna Ornatskaya). Meanwhile, by dint of extraordinary improvidence, his father was gradually squandering the wealth he had come into. At the age of eight, Sergei had to move with his family to a crowded flat in St Petersburg, winning a scholarship to study at the Conservatoire. A diphtheria epidemic carried off one sister; Sergei himself was infected but survived. In due course his father left the marital home, entrusting the children to his wife’s care.

The young Rachmaninov nevertheless still enjoyed a relatively carefree existence, frequently playing truant from his classes at the Conservatoire to go skating or swimming, and even forging marks in his academic reports. However, in spring 1885 he failed all his exams and, on the recommendation of his cousin, the Liszt pupil Alexander Siloti, he was sent to Moscow to submit to the rigorous tutelage of Nikolai Zverev. For an impressionable twelve-year-old, the wrench was colossal, and from this point on he constantly expressed a desire to be somewhere other than where he was. So, too—implicitly—much of his music, with its alternation of nostalgia and passionate protest.

Another childhood experience that imprinted itself on Rachmaninov’s music was the ritual of the Orthodox Church, especially its choral singing and bell-ringings. These sound-images, together with a general atmosphere of suffering in the face of loss, are constantly in evidence beneath the extravagant textures of both his piano sonatas, the first dating from 1907, the second from 1913. Like his second collection of Preludes and the first set of Études-tableaux, the B flat minor Sonata was composed at the country estate of Ivanovka, some 600 kilometres south-east of Moscow. The estate, at the time recently made over to his wife and her brother, but in effect largely run by Rachmaninov himself, provided a summer haven for composition, away from what had become a hectic routine of performance and touring.

The B flat minor Sonata starts with a plunge into the abyss, and the whole first movement, indeed virtually the whole work, explores the different ways in which this plunge can be transformed and shaped into large musical paragraphs. The awesome ringing of bells before the first-movement recapitulation, and the melting sequences in the middle of the intermezzo-like E minor slow movement, are just two of the most striking examples. The finale, which is immediately thrown back into the maelstrom, is dominated by the same principle. Set off against all this obsessive falling is one of Rachmaninov’s most haunting lyrical ideas, first heard at around 1'51 in the opening Allegro agitato. This is built around the lilting siciliano rhythm and the reiterated melodic centre that also characterize some of his best-known Preludes.

In 1931 the Sonata was subjected to extensive revision, which largely consisted of cutting out what might be considered repetitive or over-elaborate material; Rachmaninov compared the original to Chopin’s Second Sonata, the ‘Funeral March’, also in B flat minor, which he noted ‘lasts nineteen minutes and says everything’ (he need not have worried unduly about the clock-time; even in its unrevised form, in most performances his Sonata is only marginally longer). Pianists and commentators have disagreed on the respective merits of the original and revised versions. Horowitz, whose advocacy did much to keep the work in the repertoire, made his own conflation, restoring some of the cut material. Perhaps the truth is that neither version is objectively superior but that each appeals to a different kind of temperament. If so, then the performer can simply choose whichever stirs him the more deeply. Alternatively, like Steven Osborne and many others, he can make his own version. (See Steven Osborne’s comments below.) Whatever the option chosen, mastering the teeming textures is only the beginning of the challenge, for the clamorous virtuosity and the huge areas of sequential extension are not just for show. They are functional, interdependent structural forces, at the service of desperate passion and transcendental sadness. They demand architectural control and rhetorical generosity in equal measure.

Apart from cuts, the 1931 version is more transparent in texture, reflecting the experience of the work that immediately preceded it, the Variations on a theme of Corelli, which was completed in June 1931, during one of Rachmaninov’s European summer breaks. For this, the only work for solo piano he composed after leaving Russia in 1917, he chose the old dance melody known as ‘La Folia’—not actually composed by Corelli, but used by him in his Violin Sonata No 12. Apart from most likely prompting the Sonata revision, the 'Corelli Variations' seem to have been a catalyst for his next new work, the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra. Not only is the Rhapsody also in the form of variations, but there are several clear premonitions of its ideas in the Corelli set.

Not entirely convinced of the success of the 'Corelli Variations', Rachmaninov generally omitted some of the twenty variations in performance. In three instances (Nos 11, 12 and 19) he even allowed that option in the score. He explained himself drily in a letter to Medtner of 21 December 1931: ‘I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing increased, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order.’ In fact the design works perfectly well without such surgery, the variations grouping themselves into a quasi-four-movement sonata, in which the ‘slow movement’ begins in the major mode after a cadenza-like ‘Intermezzo’.

David Fanning © 2014

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