Nicolas Medtner (1880-1951)
"Who is Medtner?" This is a common reaction when I'm asked what I have been playing recently. To be fair, the more well-informed will sometimes inquire if that is the guy who sounds "a bit paler than Rachmaninov" or "like a sort of Russian Brahms". These two rather poorly drawn but frequently expressed comparisons would without doubt make Medtner turn at least twice in his grave. Rachmaninov, his great friend and admirer, once said "Medtner is too much of an individual to bear resemblance to anyone except the Russian composer Medtner". Incidentally, he also said : "I repeat what I said to you back in Russia: you are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time."
This is not a new phenomenon. Achievements carried out in the name of art, rather than art in the name of the achiever, have often met with ambivalence from the mainstream public. This is a particularly persistent hazard during the times of major fashion swings, as was the case after the turn of the 19th century. Being a younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Medtner's art became overshadowed by the popular appeal of the former and the mystical qualities of the latter composer. He himself would often joke about being an anachronistic phenomenon and declared himself a "pupil of Beethoven" or as Glazunov put it: 'a firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art'. While Sorabji noted: 'Like Sibelius, Medtner does not flout current fashions, he does not even deliberately ignore them, but so intent going his own individual way is he that he is simply unconscious of their very existence... he has made for himself, by the sheer strength of his own personality, that impregnable inner shrine and retreat that only the finest spirits either dare or can inhabit". Medtner did, in fact, openly express his antipathy and despair with regard to the modernist direction in which Schönberg, Stravinsky and Prokofiev (to list a few of his Antichrists) were taking music. Unfortunately for Medtner, all he could do at the time was watch in disbelief the evolution that was not only shaping music but also the changing tastes of the public at the time. But why should the fashions of times long past have any influence on our judgment right now? It shouldn't and in many cases maybe it doesn't, but the real problem is that it is almost impossible to rediscover certain unfashionable composers if they were not properly discovered in the first place. One can only hope that in the end, value will out. To me, on a personal level, it certainly has: the moment I accidentally came across a Medtner score.
One further, practical, drawback for Medtner's works is the lack of the kind of fervent championing by international virtuosos that has propelled the Tchaikovsky Concerto to its almost shocking popularity. Medtner's First Piano Concerto was apparently Horowitz's favourite (of the three) and he was even contemplating recording it - a mouth-watering prospect. However, all we have from Horowitz on record is a Fairy Tale and a somewhat bewildered remark: "Why nobody plays Medtner?"
The truth is that most people find Medtner's music somewhat inaccessible at first hearing. His melodies are difficult to remember and not particularly hummer-friendly, the unique Medtnerian rhythms and their overlaps, no matter how stunningly delightful, are not immediately comprehendible and his harmonic usage is tricky to pigeonhole without feeling like an intellectual nihilist. But hear the same piece twice and a few more times and something happens. Addiction sets in. Moreover, actually playing Medtner becomes one of the most rewarding experiences, intellectually, musically and technically.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor Op. 33
On the other end of the spectrum from Tchaikovsky's 1st, this piece is one of the least popular concertos ever written. One could count the available recordings on one hand. Had Rachmaninov done to Medtner what Rubinstein did to Tchaikovsky, and declared the concerto 'worthless' and 'unplayable', I wonder if that might have affected the current hopeless state of affairs. Most probably not - scandals and tittle-tattle surrounding his works or life are the last thing a composer of Medtner's stature would ever need.
The composition of his First Piano Concerto marked the culmination of Medtner's creative output so far. This large scale work, most of which he conceived in the summer of 1914 while on holiday in the Crimea with the composer and pianist Alexander Goldenweiser, turned out as one of his most emotionally compelling, structurally monumental and technically complex compositions. (In comparison, from the technical point of view alone, Tchaikovsky's 1st feels a little like an afternoon nap at mid-summer.) The emotional spectrum of the concerto is vast: from overwhelming tragic power in the fateful C minor (opening theme), through the mournful beauty (second subject), to blissful emancipation in C major at the end.
The concerto, although in one movement, is an adaptation of sonata form divided in three sections or 'movements'. Medtner was a true master of sonata form. Taneyev, Medtner's teacher, would often exclaim that Medtner was born with sonata form within him.
Like Tchaikovsky's concerto, this piece also deserves being called a "symphonic concerto", not only because of the grand size of the orchestra, but also because rather than representing an argument between the soloist and the orchestra, there is an intense collaboration, evolving from both sides, to present a musical argument.
It took Medtner the whole war to complete the orchestration for the concerto. He always found this task most tiresome . It was eventually premiered by the composer in February 1918 in Moscow with Koussevitzky conducting. The circumstances surrounding the premiere of the concerto were tragic; apart from the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1917 and the emigration of his friend Rachmaninov in December the same year, Medtner's family (Nicolas included) was stricken with illnesses (typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia). The latter claimed the life of his mother, Alexandra Medtner, to whom this concerto is dedicated.
The concerto opens with "five atomic bombs", as they were later described by the composer, or falling octaves, signalling the start of an apocalypse and possibly symbolizing the sudden eruption of the Great War during the tranquil summer of 1914, "as though a thunderbolt had fallen from heavens", in Medtner's words. The strings then immediately launch the concerto's main theme, which spills over the lava-like, brooding but rhythmical piano accompaniment that burbles across the whole keyboard while the tragedy unfolds inexorably. From a purely technical point of view, the piano texture here is somewhat similar to the beginning of Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto in that it also gives the soloist the chance to warm up 'the apparatus' a little before launching into the more delicate matters.
The thematic ideas right at the beginning (descending octaves and the expansive theme in the strings) are the two main ingredients which the composer uses throughout to erect this large-scale piece. The 2nd subject for example is clearly interrelated with the thematic ideas from the opening theme. The middle (and longest) section consists of a set of variations, or rather improvisations, as the composer preferred to call them, on the material already established in the exposition. Here, the composer shows a deep understanding of polyphony, while displaying a tremendous range of moods: from poignant desolation (tranquillo meditamente) to whimsical playfulness (fantastico). One could analyze for hours in fascination how the material fits together on so many different levels, however, I find that one of this section's main musical purposes is the constant feeling of a gargantual build-up before the return into the home-key of C minor in the recapitulation and the following climax. The layout of this build-up is highly effective and is one of the structural solutions for keeping the variations together. The recapitulation is then abbreviated and interrupted by the great coda (allegro molto) - in my opinion one of the most devilishly tricky bits of music ever written. The character of the closing section transcends itself from the realms of this world (from C minor into A major), serving a kind of cathartic purpose for any residue of fury or tragedy left and eventually ending in the majestic domain of C major.
One of Medtner's distinct traits is that not a single note appears superfluous. The notes (and there are some!) aren't simply there to create a certain mood or effect. They are fulfilling the sole purpose of serving thematic developments and their interrelations at the most sophisticated level. The emotional impact, colour palettes and Medtner's unique rhythmic vitality are secondary but nonetheless highly effective. You add one note or take one away and the whole picture implodes. However, what is truly unique is the symbiosis between Medtner's natural feel for the form and its usage, which shows Western qualities (his distant ancestors were German), and the emotional intensity with its aristocratic poise, which indisputably speaks in the Russian language.
Medtner's awareness of this duality between his German roots and his Russian identity are best witnessed in his songs, of which he composed some 108 (even more than Rachmaninov). The lyrics, to which the music is set, are divided equally between Russian and German texts, mostly by his favourite poets Pushkin and Goethe. The Medtner-specialists are unequivocal in their opinion that they contain some of the finest compositions among the Russian repertoire. The song "Liebliches Kind!..." ("Enchanting Child!...") is from a set of "Nine Goethe Songs, Op. 6" and is set on the words from Goethe's 'Singspiel' Claudine von Villa Bella. In the text, the poet is asking a child why souls suffer such torment. Not surprisingly, the style of the song (and in fact all of his German songs) is closer to the lieder of Schubert and Wolf, rather than Glinka and Rachmaninov. This particular song is written in one of his most outspoken and accessible styles and contains some of his most tender and emotionally scintillating music.
At times one is stupefied by some drastic metamorphosis that a composer undergoes during his development. No such thing with Medtner. His belief in his ideals was held with an almost supernatural conviction and he would never diverge from them, starting with his Opus 1 until the last note he put down on paper. There is, however, also an almost primordial element to Medtner's creative processes. While composing, he believed that somehow he was setting down ideas that already existed somewhere. If these didn't come to him, they would find another vessel in order to gather and catapult themselves into the world. All he had to do was to remove any superfluities and bring out the essence of the message in the closest possible approximation to the ideal form that he perceived. These ideals seem also to have been attuned to Michelangelo's artistic ethos some 400 years earlier - the task of the sculptor was to free the forms that were already inside the stone: "I saw the angel in the marble and I chiselled until I set him free." (Incidentally, Medtner's Op. 1 is a song for voice and piano, called "Angel".)
Remarkably, many listeners experience the very same phenomenon on the receiving end. This is wonderfully described by Medtner's contemporary, the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin: 'Medtner's music astonishes and delights...you may fancy that you have heard the melody before....But where, when, from whom, in childhood, in a dream, in delirium? You will puzzle your head and strain your memory in vain: you have not heard it anywhere: in human ears it sounds for the first time...And yet it is as though you had long been waiting for it - waiting because you 'knew' it, not in sound, but in spirit. For the spiritual content of the melody is universal and primordial...it is as though age-long desires and strivings of our forebears were singing in us; or, as though the eternal melodies we had heard in heaven and preserved in this life as 'strange and lovely yearnings', were remembered at last and sung again - chaste and simple.'
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor Op. 23
'Worthless... vulgar... hackneyed... unplayable... awkward... trite... clumsy'. These were only some of the emphatic adjectives so famously cited against Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto by the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein during a fateful meeting at the Moscow Conservatoire on Christmas Eve in 1874. This is one of those ironic moments in the history of music (hardly surpassed when a famous record producer turned down The Beatles some 90 years later). I imagine that Tchaikovsky must have anticipated showing the piece to Rubinstein with great urgency. Not only had he worked on the concerto obsessively for six weeks in order to finish the sketches, he also intended to dedicate the piece to Rubinstein in the hope that he would perform it. The terrible strain on Tchaikovsky's confidence must have been greatly amplified when Rubinstein was 'charging his thunderbolts' while the composer played through the piece. What Rubinstein could not have known was that he was about to ridicule what would become one of the most popular pieces ever written. One cannot help wishing to have somehow witnessed his scathing attack on the poor composer, in order to then indulge into a little Schadenfreude by casually bringing a pertinent detail to the pianist's attention: the work would soon become the most frequently performed and broadcast concerto in any season in any year. A little bit of scandal can sometimes go a long way and in Tchaikovsky's case, it must have gone all the way. Indeed, at the time of writing, there are at least 149 commercially available recordings, making it one of the most recorded works (classical or popular) of all time.
Soon after this "most unfriendly" and "hurtful" meeting with Rubinstein, the concerto found an admirer, the German virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who later became the dedicatee of the piece. The adjectives he used were rather different to those of Rubinstein: 'Original, noble and powerful', and 'mature, ripe and distinguished.' He premiered the piece, peculiarly enough in Boston (25th October 1875), with great success. A month later, the concerto was finally performed in Moscow with the 19-year-old Sergei Taneyev playing and, even more peculiarly, with Rubinstein conducting. Eventually Rubinstein swallowed his pride and learned the piano part too, as did Sapellnikov and Siloti later on.
It is important to note that what these pianists were actually playing was Tchaikovsky's original version of the concerto, dating from 1874-75 and not its revision from 1889 that was subsequently played by Sauer, Rummel, aus der Ohe and virtually every other pianist ever since (including Medtner). These days, the original version is largely forgotten. It is not known who suggested the changes back in 1889 (possibly von Bülow or Dannreuther). Although the original hardly differs from its revision, it is nevertheless worthwhile trying to understand the fundamental intentions of the composer before the piece was "hijacked" to accommodate the insatiable thirst for virtuosic display of so many pianists. Imagine if the introductory earthquake-provoking supernovae of Db major chords, exploding across the whole range of the keyboard while generating major job opportunities for an army of piano technicians, were replaced by a harp-like, gentle but authoritative strumming in D flat, accompanied by the grand tune in mezzo forte, resembling a great barque setting out on a maritime journey, unfurling its sails and parting the waves with its bow. In this instance, the revision seems like a different piece, and the study of the original version may help in understanding the fresh colours and multidimensional sonorities which were originally intended by the composer. There are a few more divergences, notably in the pas de deux between the violins and the piano in the middle section of the third movement, which in the original version gets harmonically completely lost in the woods. In my opinion, however, the later revision of this passage has little bearing on the interpretation and is therefore of less importance.
Perhaps Rubinstein had a point when he remarked that the material was "second hand". What makes the concerto distinctly Russian is Tchaikovsky's not infrequent use of folk melodies and dance rhythms in his music (for example in the whirling theme of the Allegro section of the first movement). The mercurial middle section in the second movement (technically much more demanding than the commonly dreaded octaves that can easily induce mass-hysteria among piano fanciers) which interrupts the lullaby of the Andantino is, however, based on a French song "Il faut s'amuser, danser et rire", as sung by the soprano Désirée Artôt, to whom Tchaikovsky was once engaged. The mood of the movement's opening Andantino is reminiscent of that of Chopin's Berceuse (it is even in the same key) and the idea of incorporating a scherzo into the second movement had been used some 30 years previously in the "Sinfonie singulière" by Berwald. The third movement is based on a graceful (rather than aggressive) but invigorating Ukrainian dance which is contrasted by the serenely flowing melody that ascends in the violins above the virtuoso scales in the piano part.
The concerto has a few structural oddities. One of them is the fact that the grand opening tune never makes a reappearance. Although there is an established relationship between the opening and the following Allegro (they make up a large part of a double-exposition), it is rather difficult to hear a clear link between them. In contrast, one of the most satisfying moments in the concerto is the big cadenza of the first movement with its colourful and imaginative writing and its magical transition into the closing section that is so simple yet so effective. The concerto is moreover full of hidden, sometimes almost impressionistic colours that are waiting to be discovered, while the broad melodies in the second subjects are bursting with lyricism and emotional tenderness. Bringing out these qualities is to me the true hurdle in performing this concerto.
© Yevgeny Sudbin 2007