Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 4 in g,
Piano Sonata No. 7 in e,
Op. 25/2, “Night Wind”
Paul Stewart (pn)
; Igor Golovchin, cond
PALEXA 0506 (68:00) Live:
Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory 6/8/1996,
Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, Montréal 12/14/1997
The two in-concert performances documented on this CD were recorded 14 and 15 years earlier than the 2011 all-Medtner disc, reviewed above.
The question has been raised before regarding Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony as to whether, after what is arguably his crowning symphonic achievement, the Second Symphony, he truly had another symphony in him. I wonder if the same question might not be posed regarding his Fourth Piano Concerto. The Second is so popular it’s practically the composer’s signature work, and we’re on such familiar terms with the Third that we address it informally as “the Rach-3.” But “the Rach-4?” I don’t think so. Where are those surging melodies, pregnant with poignant, bittersweet emotion? Where are the sweeping vistas and majestic peaks?
Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto is not completely devoid of the magic that gives the Second and Third Concertos their special appeal, nor is it without interest, but it has never caught on the way the earlier scores have. In fact, Rachmaninoff twice withdrew the work to revise it, so that it exists in three versions—the original from 1926, a second go at it from 1928, and finally the 1941 edition that is usually performed today. Yet for all of the composer’s efforts—he liposuctioned some 192 bars out of the score—the Fourth Concerto remains the least popular of Rachmaninoff’s four concertos.
What Paul Stewart gives us on this disc is tantamount to yet a fourth version of the piece, for as he explains in his album note, the composer’s own recording of the concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941, shortly after the official revised edition was published, differs in some minor details from the printed score. Stewart’s performance thus combines the final revised version and Rachmaninoff’s recorded amendments.
Rachmaninoff and Medtner had something of a mutual admiration society going on between them, and that is illustrated in the pairing of the former’s Fourth Concerto and the latter’s Seventh Sonata, for each work bears a reciprocal dedication—Rachmaninoff’s concerto to Medtner, Medtner’s sonata to Rachmaninoff. But 15 years separate the two scores, for Medtner completed his “Night Wind” Sonata in 1911, and while Rachmaninoff felt honored by the dedication, he never performed the piece in public, perhaps fearing negative public reaction to its length and daunting complexity.
In a single movement spanning over 33 minutes, Medtner’s “Night Wind” Sonata was inspired by an untitled
Sturm und Drang
poem from the 1830s by Russian poet, Fyodor Tchutchev. Medtner’s musical response to Tchutchev’s verses is tortured, nightmarish, labyrinthine in its harmonic and polyphonic convolutions, and largely bewildering to the listener as well as the player. Paul Stewart points out in his program note that a number of Medtner’s Italian expression markings—
giocondamente, sfrenatamente, susurrando, vertiginoso
—would send most pianists scurrying to their Italian dictionaries.
I have to admit that in listening to Stewart’s performance of the piece it doesn’t sound all that frightful, though it probably is to play it. Admittedly, its rapid mood changes give one little opportunity to reflect on what just happened a second or two before, but the sweep of the thing picks you up and carries you forward along with it.
Stewart speaks of the exhaustive contrapuntal techniques to which Medtner subjects his motivic and thematic material—a discipline the composer would have learned from his teacher, Sergei Taneyev—but the music is in such a state of continuous flux that the impression it makes on the ear is more one of chaos than of order. I think one would have to study the score, as Stewart has, and listen to the recording quite a few times before the cartoon callout light-bulb would flash on. Medtner and Rachmaninoff may have greatly admired each other’s work, but this sonata is much closer in style, content, and vocabulary to the sort of thing Scriabin was writing around this time, or even to Busoni’s
Medtner’s “Night Wind” Sonata has been recorded before—in fact, complete surveys of Medtner’s sonatas by Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion), and Hamish Milne (originally on CRD, now on Brilliant Classics) are apt to prove formidable competitors to Paul Stewart, who has launched his own new Medtner cycle. But the current performance is all the more remarkable for having been recorded live, as was the Rachmaninoff concerto.
The Moscow audience shows its appreciation for Stewart’s Rachmaninoff with well-deserved applause and ovations at the end, while only dead silence follows the final chord of the Medtner in Montréal. I can’t imagine that the Montréal audience was unreceptive to Stewart’s astonishing feat of bravery, endurance, and virtuosity, so it had to be the recording producer’s decision to cut the applause. For the Rachmaninoff, by the way, Stewart plays a Steinway, for the Medtner a Fazioli.
This CD has much to recommend it: two major piano works, each dedicated reciprocally to the composer of the other; and electrifying live performances of extremely difficult music by a pianist extraordinaire, Paul Stewart, who plays these pieces with all the panache and perspicacity of one of the great keyboard artists of our age.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano no 4 in G minor, Op. 40 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Paul Stewart (Piano)
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1926/1941; USA
Venue: Live Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Russia
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