Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone
March 2017

What an apt coupling this is. The two composers were close friends; Medtner’s Second Concerto, completed in the summer of 1922, is dedicated to Rachmaninov, whose Fourth Concerto (in the course of completion at the same time) is dedicated to Medtner … whose C minor Concerto makes several fleeting references to Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Concertos.

Medtner’s Op 50 is an extraordinarily tricky assignment for both pianist and conductor but both here and in the Rachmaninov there is a palpable and invigorating rapport between Hamelin and Jurowski. The former is presented with a relentless thicket of notes and few passages of respite; without sight of a score or the pianist, the listener can have little idea of just how difficult the piano part is. The latter has to deal with the tricky coordination of constantly fluctuating rhythms, figurations and tempos with twists and turns that come faster than a Scalextric track, such is the profusion of Medtner’s ideas.

Few can illuminate or clarify complex textures quite as well as Marc-André Hamelin and no pianist past or present understands Medtner’s idiom better (his recording of the complete sonatas is likely to remain the benchmark). Obviously in vastly superior sound, this is a recording that stands beside the composer’s classic account (with the Philharmonia under Issay Dobrowen in 1947 which, however, and unlike Hamelin’s, takes Medtner’s own suggested cut of 45 bars in the cadenza) and is better recorded than Nikolai Demidenko’s compelling 1991 performance on the same label and with the same producer (4/92), coupled with Medtner’s less approachable Third Concerto.

As to Hamelin’s Rach Three, there are parts that quite swept me away and parts that felt slightly disengaged and routine. Take the very opening, played at a laidback minim=56 (as opposed to the composer’s urgent 72). It sounds rather dour. While some may feel the piano is a tad too dominant in the balance, it allows one unusually to hear the intricate writing in scrupulously observed detail. If Hamelin can occasionally resemble someone who likes a drink but is determined to remain sober, there are passages aplenty where he digs deep for a reading of powerful emotion. Hear how he handles the great central climax of the first movement and its cadenza (the shorter of the two), and with what relish the seasoned chamber musician responds to the woodwind soloists in the Intermezzo. The finale storms home in suitably triumphant fashion. Nevertheless, the concerto’s overall timing of 43'11" is surprisingly slow, closer to the young Ashkenazy with Fistoulari than to Janis with Munch or Dorati, Wild with Horenstein and Hough with Litton, all round about the 35'00" to 37'00" mark. The disc has a playing time of 82'09".