Notes and Editorial Reviews
The piano works of Nikolay Medtner are finally achieving the recognition they merit, but not so his compositions for violin and piano. A great pity, for they encompass music of rare beauty and power, gratifying for both performer and audience. Medtner’s scores are unique: distinctly Russian, unabashedly Romantic and full-bodied, yet intellectually devised and highly disciplined, every note and detail given a purpose or, in the composer’s words, “a destiny”. Close acquaintance and repeated listenings reveal his extraordinary craft. Medtner’s five violin and piano works occupy a special place in his oeuvre and fill an important gap in the limited Russian repertoire for this combination.
Although trained as a pianist, and chiefly
a composer for the piano, the violin featured prominently in Medtner’s life. He had played it as a child, and both his wife and an elder brother, Alexander, were professional violinists. Sonata No. 1 in B minor, Op. 21, dates from 1910–11 and is one of his best-known works.
Medtner’s rigorous upbringing emphasised the Greek and Latin classics as well as nineteenth-century Russian and German literature. A fascination for the myth of Dionysus or Bacchus, god of wine and intoxication (in both the physical and spiritual sense) was behind the inspiration for this sonata. In ancient times Dionysus was worshipped through ecstatic song and dance; appropriately, the sonata’s three movements are Canzona (Song), Danza, and Ditirambo (a choric hymn and dance to Dionysus; Medtner had previously used the term for his Three Dithyrambs, Op. 10, for piano). The Canzona, marked con fluidezza, is a lilting siciliano, sensuous and melancholic. Danza begins as a coy, canonic conversation interrupted by a raucous and syncopated Presto – the effect is somewhat of a genteel tea party where the hostess suddenly lifts her skirts and dances on the table. The ceremonious Ditirambo follows attacca, tolling bells in B major heralding an approaching procession. This rondo includes a tortured episode in B flat minor marked dolente; surprisingly its rhythm is that of a tango. Just as the movement reaches its powerful peak, a gradual winding down ushers the procession off-stage, thematic fragments from the previous movements making their exit as well.
Dedicated to his sister-in-law Anna (whom he later married), only the Canzona and Danza were ready in time for a scheduled première by the Medtner brothers. The completed work was first heard in Moscow in February 1911, performed by the composer and Alexander Mogilevsky. We are fortunate to have Medtner’s own recording with the British violinist Cecilia Hansen. This invaluable document from 1947 is the primary source for the present performance, with the composer’s occasional changes in text, phrasing, dynamics and other details incorporated. In the decade before the Russian Revolution, Medtner lived a prosperous life, well-established in the world of music. The events of October 1917 changed all that. Dispossessed and suffering extreme hardships, Medtner and his wife were granted visas to leave Russia only in late 1921. They never returned, except for a brief concert tour in 1927 during which his next two works for violin and piano were introduced.
Composed in Europe and polished during his 1924 tour of America, Two Canzonas with Dances, Op. 43 return to the Bacchic connotations of Op. 21. These engaging miniatures are Medtner’s only examples of what might be termed “light” music, although his distinctive craft is in evidence throughout. The first Canzona, in Medtner’s “pure” tonality of C major, has the tentative air of a child taking his first steps, the unusual timesignature of 11/8 adding to the hesitancy. Touches of humour abound, a comic rush of scales leading headlong to the capricious, waltz-like Dance. The second Canzona is a different matter: a cry for a lost Russia, nostalgic and bittersweet. Its complement is a rough-and-ready Dance whose gentler trio is oddly reminiscent of a theme in Schumann’s Piano Concerto, a work Medtner had often played in his youth.
Medtner’s “Spring Sonata”, his Sonata No. 2 in G major, Op. 44, also dates from those peripatetic years. As with the second Canzona, its inspiration was triggered by homesickness, particularly for the memories of springtime in Russia. Symbolic of rebirth and the affirmation of God in nature, spring was especially significant to Medtner. A quotation from Fyodor Tyutchev’s poem Vesennye vody (Spring Waters), also the text of a famous song by Rachmaninov, adumbrates the Finale’s main theme in the printed score.
The Second Sonata is conceived as a gigantic structure lasting over forty minutes. An imposing Introduzione immediately announces a “motto” motif, in a characteristic dotted rhythm, which will unify the entire sonata. The first movement fairly bursts with impassioned melody, exhaustively developed and crowned with a magnificent Coda, its many themes deconstructed over the course of a long diminuendo. A brief Cadenza, featuring the “motto” in the piano and some virtuoso writing for the violin, serves as a prelude to six variations whose plaintive theme is redolent of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. Cast in the Aeolian mode common to a dumka or lament, each variation becomes increasingly more folkloric, both instruments imitating the strumming of a balalaika in the final measures. Another short Cadenza (this time spotlighting the piano) launches the folkloric Finale. In rondo form, the rhythm of its main theme corresponds exactly to Tyutchev’s words, “Viesna idyot!” (“Spring comes!”). Subsidiary material consists of a voluptuous episode in B major, and a quasi-polonaise in C major/minor (a small, deliberate plagiarism from Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz underlines the demonic side of this section). The former episode, returning quietly and most effectively in the pianist’s left hand, gathers intensity until an overwhelming climax is reached. The Coda gleefully exploits every Medtnerian trick in the book, juxtaposing themes from all three movements with triumphant final statements of the “motto”. Spring has indeed come!
Medtner reserved the premiere of Op. 43 and Op. 44 for his 1927 visit to Soviet Russia. Both were enthusiastically received by the Moscow public, the composer partnering violinist Dmitry Tsyganov. In the audience was Sergey Prokofiev, no great admirer of Medtner’s “nineteenth-century” aesthetics; how ironic to discover a harmonic progression in the final pages of Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata, Op. 84, completed seventeen years later, lifted directly from Medtner’s second Canzona!
Following this tour, and after unsuccessful attempts to establish a career in continental Europe, Medtner settled in England. Despite an initial flurry of activity, the Second World War curtailed much of his concert work. A serious heart condition limited post-war public appearances, Medtner resigning himself to a quiet life of composition and teaching. At this sad time, a deus ex machina entered Medtner’s life. An unusually cultivated man and a fine pianist (as was his sister), the Maharaja of the southern Indian state of Mysore was dismayed to learn of the composer’s circumstances. Under his auspices, a Medtner Society was founded to promote and record the composer playing his own works. Between 1947 and 1950 this extraordinary endeavour yielded a legacy which preserves for ever Medtner’s magisterial playing and definitive interpretations; among the recordings is the aforementioned performance of Op. 21. In gratitude, the composer dedicated his crowning achievement, Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 60, to the Maharaja. Medtner spent his last months confident that posterity would never forget him. Now, in the 21st century, his star has risen again.
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