I hope I don’t come across as unforgivably philistine when I say that Medtner is a composer I’ve often struggled to enjoy. He has sometimes struck me as one who can be unduly dour in some of his most serious works, but this new recital has proved something of a revelation. Steven Osborne’s recording of the expansive Sonata Romantica, Op. 53 No. 1, reveals colours, and light and shade, that made me listen to the work anew. Lasting almost 25 minutes, this is a big piece, and what’s so impressive about Osborne’s account is not only the superlative technical command but the musical imagination he brings to the work – finding a range of nuance and expressive depth that makes the most urgent and compelling case for large- scale Medtner that I’ve ever come across.
Written in 1930, the Sonata Romantica is in B flat minor – like Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata – and it is the twelfth of Medtner’s piano sonatas. As we learn from David Fanning’s excellent booklet note, it was first performed by the composer in Glasgow in 1931. Fanning also tells us that Medtner himself wanted to record the Sonata before his death in 1951, but this project was never realized. Osborne’s tremendous performance is preceded by engaging accounts of two Skazki (‘Tales’), Op. 20, from 1909 – engaging pieces that have a more obvious affinity to the world of Rachmaninov than some of Medtner’s grander pieces. Marc- André Hamelin’s recording of this work (also on Hyperion) is also excellent, but Osborne’s performance has a concentration and imagination that sets it apart – so much so that I’ve been forced to ditch some of my preconceptions about Medtner.Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli have a singular place in the composer’s output as the only major work for solo piano that he composed after leaving Russia in 1917 (aside, that is, from the revised version of the Second Sonata that had originally been written in 1913). They also have a misleading title, since they are variations on La Folia, an ancient theme that was used by Corelli – as well as by Lully and Vivaldi among (many) others – but certainly wasn’t composed by him. Still, this is a work that shows Rachmaninov at his most concentrated: while there’s a certain austerity to several of the variations, there’s no lack of musical interest. Osborne’s performance seems effortlessly to encompass the expressive span of this deeply impressive piece, and it is among the best I’ve heard.
The Second Sonata is always a rather problematic proposition: the revised version is preferred by some pianists for its greater conciseness and more transparent textures, while the original version has an opulence that is hard to resist, and several passages that it seems a shame to lose. Vladimir Horowitz was the greatest advocate for the work, but he played it in a hybrid version that combined the best elements of both versions – something he did with the composer’s blessing. Osborne has gone down the same path, making his own ‘ideal’ performing version of the work. Whatever ethical issues there might be about this rather à-la-carte approach to musical texts, I have to say that it works spectacularly well (as does Horowitz’s version in his matchless 1968 Sony recording). Anyone wanting to hear Rachmaninov’s first thoughts should listen to Zoltán Kocsis’s wonderful Philips recording of the original version. Osborne – consistently sensitive, spirited and technically dazzling – is extremely persuasive in his own version of the work.
This is an impressive disc in every way. With fine recorded sound and excellent notes, it deserves the warmest recommendation. From a purely personal point of view, it is a disc that has opened my ears to Medtner’s Sonata Romantica and for that I shall always be grateful./