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Violin Sonata No 3 in E minor 'Sonata Epica', Op 57
1936/8; dedicated to the memory of Emil Medtner

'Medtner: Violin Sonatas Nos 1 & 3' (CDA67963)
Medtner: Violin Sonatas Nos 1 & 3
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Movement 1: Introduzione: Andante meditamente Ė Allegro
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace e leggiero
Movement 3: Andante con moto
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro molto

Violin Sonata No 3 in E minor 'Sonata Epica', Op 57
‘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.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2013

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Details for CDA67963 track 3
Andante con moto
Recording date
20 February 2012
Recording venue
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Phil Rowlands
Hyperion usage
  1. Medtner: Violin Sonatas Nos 1 & 3 (CDA67963)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: September 2013
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