Fashions come and go, yet Medtner’s music is for eternity. As trite as this may sound, it is nevertheless true: I often imagine that when the last sign of life, the last spark in the universe has been extinguished, Medtner’s melodies will still somehow continue to reverberate through the emptiness of space. Upon hearing the opening of his Sonata-Reminiscenza, or the central theme of Canzona matinata, or even his Op. 1, the first piece on this disc, it becomes clear why that could be the case: once you have become mesmerized by the harmonies, time stands still and you are completely absorbed in the moment. I love the quote by Ivan Ilyin on Medtner’s music: ‘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 conveys that feeling that this music, so beautiful and pure-sounding in its simplicity must have always existed somewhere, somehow – yet each piece is a unique composition and it was Medtner who managed to extract and make this music accessible to us by putting the right notes, in the right order, on paper. There is a kind of Michelangelesque element to this creative process: some 400 hundred years before Medtner, the multifaceted genius Michelangelo was convinced that the task of the sculptor was not so much to create but 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.’
Prologue from ‘Stimmungsbilder’, Op. 1 (c. 1895)
The Angel is in fact the title of Medtner’s Op. 1 bis – an arrangement of the Prologue which opens the Stimmungsbilder (Eight Mood Pictures), Op. 1, and with which the then only eighteen-year old composer introduces not only the set but in a way also a whole life’s work. The piece is prefaced by some lines from Lermontov’s poem The Angel, telling us of an angel flying through the night sky cradling a soul while singing a quiet song. Highly complex, unmistakably Medtnerian polyrhythms are the building blocks of this ‘mood picture’, conveying the constant movement of the angel’s huge wings. The melody – or a song – materializing somewhere in between the two hands, creating the impression that at least three hands are needed to play the piece. Throughout there is a feeling of calm and quiet ecstasy which is difficult to achieve for as long as you actually try to do so: at a certain point, quite unexpectedly, the full picture comes out to the foreground by itself (a little bit like after staring at a pattern where a 3D image is supposed to appear between the eyes). As elsewhere in Medtner’s music, complexity (whether rhythmic or polyphonic) is only a tool to bring out highly emotional content. During what corresponds to the third strophe (and the words ‘grief and tears’) the piece reaches a climactic moment of despair with an upward flourish, only to dissolve back slowly into serenity.
Three Fairy Tales‘
No one tells such tales as Kolya’, Rachmaninov used to joke affectionately. Medtner wrote more than thirty of them throughout his life, thereby coining his own, unique genre. The original sets had the German word Märchen inscribed over the works, which means the English translation ‘fairy tales’ may not tell the whole story, so to speak. It seems clear that the creative impulse for Medtner’s fairy tales came not only from Russian or German folklore but also from such diverse sources as Pushkin, Shakespeare and even the Bible. I am fortunate to be in possession of some of Medtner’s belongings, including books by Russian and German poets in which I have discovered numerous annotations and musical ideas jotted down with a pencil in the margins: to witness how a creation springs into being is a humbling experience. But if this is where Medtner’s tales originated, it is also true that the narrative elements in them are implied rather than depicted, and that in the end the compositions always tell their own story. The variety and contrasts of the pieces are astonishing and the composer’s unique ability to depict a mood vividly more than matches the imagination of the various storytellers throughout the centuries.
Allegretto tranquillo e grazioso, Op. 51 No. 3 (1928)
This little piece is the reason I first became aware of Medtner. Unfortunately Horowitz only ever recorded one Medtner piece (this one) and I remember listening to it on a Walkman (it was a long time ago) while returning back to school from a piano lesson through the busy train station in Euston. When Horowitz started playing this piece, I had to sit down on the floor. The music completely transformed the depressingly stressful sight of the many men in suits rushing around trying to get somewhere. The charming and delightful harmonies and imaginative modulations lit up the station and I began to smile as the suit-men around me appeared to be dancing. In any case, I listened to it over and over and, unlike many other pieces, it became progressively more interesting as more detail emerged. (This is a particular trait of Medtner’s œuvre: repeated listening enhances one’s appreciation of his music greatly, especially with the more complex and dense works).
Allegro con espressione, Op. 20 No. 1 (1909)
There is a world of turmoil and sorrow condensed into this miniature. Medtner advised his pupil Edna Iles: ‘Play… as if appealing to someone with a fervent entreaty’. The typical Medtnerian cross-rhythms are again present throughout the piece. The expansiveness and intensity reach almost Rachmaninov-like levels until the white heat of the climax, appropriately marked con disperazione, eventually breaks out onto the surface.
Allegretto frescamente, Op. 26 No. 1 (c. 1912)
In stark contrast, this is a lullaby in E flat major that moves somewhere between dream and delirium, exploring unique sonorities and harmonies as it glides smoothly on.
Sonata-Reminiscenza, Op. 38 No. 1 (1918–20)
Between 1918 and 1920, while at a friend’s dacha at Bugry, not far from Moscow, Medtner jotted down musical ideas for the three cycles of piano pieces later entitled Forgotten Melodies. The Sonata-Reminiscenza in A minor, Op. 38 No. 1, is perhaps Medtner’s most ‘famous’ work (in as far as this word can be applied to any of his music). It is the first piece of the first cycle, which is also the longest of the three. The opening contains the essence or the motto of the piece and is one of Medtner’s most intimate and memorable figurations (once heard, it is not likely to be ‘forgotten’ again). This ‘Recollection Sonata’ might be regarded as Medtner’s reflection on the difficult times in Russia – the war and revolution that had just taken place – and the anticipation of his imminent departure from his homeland. It is not a nostalgic statement, but a meditative one. After the two rather restrained subjects of the exposition, the mood intensifies in the development section, climaxing with two arpeggiated upward flourishes full of despair. The sky clears only briefly in the recapitulation as the theme is heard again, this time in G major. The moment proves short-lived when the anguish returns with more complex chromatic polyphony, escalating into a coda-like outcry before a final return of the pensive motto.
Canzona matinata and Sonata tragica, Op. 39 Nos 4 & 5 (1918–20)
Sonata tragica is part of Medtner’s second cycle of Forgotten Melodies, Op. 39. It is linked to the preceding piece in the cycle, Canzona matinata, together with which Medtner insisted it should be performed (perhaps because they share a theme in their respective middle section). In the single-movement sonata, a remarkable intensity of emotion is concentrated. Typically for Medtner, its two apparently contrasting main themes eventually prove to be different guises of one and the same material. The first theme starts abruptly, a blow of fate, while the second is consolatory and gentle. Emotionally, the sonata offers little respite. The tension mounts especially in the recapitulation, and the work moves inexorably towards a devastating coda, which concludes with another blow, like the one with which the sonata began.
Rachmaninov, one of Medtner’s dearest friends and greatest supporters, famously proclaimed: ‘You are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time.’ It is therefore only natural for works by the two of them to appear together in concert programmes and on disc, even if it is by no means necessary – Medtner does perfectly well on his own. I, however, find fewer similarities in their music and its emotional content than many others do – for me, they are in fact worlds apart even though their biographical background and certain musical values were similar. Musically, I find that Rachmaninov generally deals more with raw human emotion: he sweeps you off your feet, avalanche style. Medtner’s effect is milder – it may not affect everybody, but if it does, the experience is also very profound, but in a different way: you are left wondering at the beauty and perfection of the music more as an outside observer, rather than an active participant.
Sergei Rachmaninov: Preludes, Op. 23 (1901–03)
Like Chopin, Rachmaninov undertook the gargantuan task of composing 24 preludes traversing all minor and major keys. Compared to Chopin’s preludes however, Rachmaninov’s are considerably longer, more texturally dense and rhythmically complex. They are also filled with an unmistakably Russian (but never nationalistic) intensity, nostalgia and a certain vast expansiveness that flows freely through the music. The glorious barcarolle-like Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4, is a fine example of this. Insofar as there are any similarities between Medtner and Rachmaninov, some may be found in the textures of this prelude and of Medtner’s Op. 1 which opens this disc: both have a broad, flowing song-like melody with a fairly even, calm accompaniment. The crucial difference is that Rachmaninov’s ‘song’ is of a more ‘earthy’ nature, sung by a human, whereas Medtner’s angel song is celestial. Similarities can thus be found in the style of writing and pianistic textures, but rarely (if at all) in the underlying message.
Perhaps Rachmaninov’s second most famous prelude (after Op. 3 No. 2 in C sharp minor) is Op. 23 No. 5 in G minor. The prelude has enjoyed many great champions, including Horowitz and Gilels. There is a curious film clip showing Gilels bombarding the piano with this prelude at an aerodrome during the Second World War. He has been placed among the war planes, presumably to serve as an inspiration to the soldiers and pilots before they fly off to bomb the prelude out of the Germans. In spite of its beautifully reflective middle section (which is not heard in this clip), there is possibly a warlike, obsessive-compulsive rhythmical element to the piece, but still it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry whenever art is reduced to a trite political statement. While Gilels is playing, the narrator informs us, hypnotically: ‘Gilels is playing at the front, to remind us what the war is worth fighting for: Immortal music!’
Preludes, Op. 32 (1910)
Rachmaninov composed his next set of preludes while at the height of his powers both as composer and pianist, touring extensively during the winter months and composing copiously during the summer. Having completed his Third Piano Concerto the previous year and the large-scale Liturgy of St John Chrysostom in the summer of 1910, Rachmaninov finished the whole set of Op. 32 in a matter of 19 days while at his summer residence, Ivanovka (where he was at his most productive). The gentle left-hand figurations and the flowering melody in the right hand of Prelude No. 5 in G major offer a rare moment of pure introspection and tenderness within this set. There is almost a Ravelian quality in this piece as the Ondine-like song is accompanied by shimmering watery textures in the left hand. The brief moment of sunshine gets interrupted by the tumultuous F minor Prelude, Op. 32 No. 6, with wrathful, marching chords in the left hand which might well have given John Williams some ideas for Darth Vader’s theme. In Prelude No. 12 in G sharp minor the gentle, cascading figurations make a return, now with the melody in the left hand, and in a more poignant mood, compared to No. 5.
The last prelude of the set, Op. 32 No. 13, is not only a testimony to Rachmaninov’s grandeur as a composer but also to his extraordinarily grand physical attributes. Here, size really does matter, for many of the chords are not really playable by a ‘normal’ human being. This prelude has it all: pastoral, siciliano-like rocking rhythms, an exuberant middle section accelerating into a sudden outburst in the manner of Rachmaninov’s own Études-Tableaux, and a bell-like, concluding chordal apotheosis. So in spite of the evolutionary disadvantage of regular-sized body parts, I have found it impossible to exclude this prelude: there aren’t many pieces that make for a better finish.
© Yevgeny Sudbin 2015