> MEDTNER Piano Concertos Madge BISCD1258 [RB]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

HOFFNUNG for CHRISTMAS? an ideal Christmas present for yourself or your friends.
Books posted the day the order is received

Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1914-18) [37.23]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1927) [40.18]
Piano Concerto No. 3 Ballade (1940-43) [35.46]
Piano Sonata in G minor Op. 22 (1911) [15.38]
Sonata Reminiscenza Op. 38 No. 1 (1919) [11.46]
Sonata Tragica Op. 38 No. 5 (1919) [9.44]
Geoffrey Douglas Madge (piano)
Artur Rubinstein PO/Ilya Stupel
rec Lodz, October 1991
BIS-CD-1258 [152.44] 2 CDs for price of one


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These recordings are not BIS originals. However you would not know that from the booklet or cover; a surprising oversight from this company. BIS's standards are usually exemplars for the 'crowd' to follow. I was sorry that they did not mention that these had first appeared on Jesper Buhl's Danacord label. . Or did I miss the note.

When first published the three discs appeared with disastrous timing at about the same time as a clutch of other Medtner CDs in 1991-2. Demidenko was on Hyperion. Tozer began his cycle with Chandos. Testament issued Medtner's own 78s recordings of the second and third concertos back to back. After drought a flood. The drought had not been complete but the Concertos had until then been hard to track down in LP land. You might have picked up Melodiyas (either on Russian domestics or Western licensed discs) of the First Concerto, the Second played by Shatskes and the Third, wonderfully, by Nikolaeyevna long before she was fêted. Candide even had the Third Concerto (now available as part of the VoxBox Romantic piano concerto series). In any event the Danacords suffered against the Chandos/Hyperion competition. The critics washed the Danacords out, largely, I suspect, because of their profligate layout across three CDs and for coupling several solo piano sonatas with the concertos.

The First Concerto: Much of the first movement (in fact the First Concerto is laid out as a single movement in three distinct parts) is in step with the Scriabin Concerto (a work for which I zealously hold a none too subtle torch), the Arensky and the Rachmaninov First. It comes as a jolt when the second movement opens in macabre garb as if the composer had been listening to Prokofiev. Despite the facile propaganda you will catch nary a whiff of Brahms in this music. The First Concerto suffers from inspirational sag during the second movement which is too tranquillo and self-absorbed by half; the same can be said of the Romanz of the Second Concerto. The third movement (all of 18.04!) warms up considerably and there is some zestful syncopation well ahead of its time as in III 3.47 as well as the strongest cross-references with Rachmaninov (7.12). Madge is superb when the music calls for great animation as in 10.59 of III. He is the prince of the leonine flourish - generous of soul in the last five minutes of the concerto - very much the counterpart of Art Nouveau in sound - almost Baxian in its saturated undergrowth. No wonder Sorabji esteemed this work so.

The three sonatas fill out the first disc alongside the First Concerto. The Op. 22 work is given a turbulent Lisztian reading - elbows out. The Reminiscenza will be known to many through the much-travelled Gilels recording. Strange how Gilels seems to have dropped Medtner once he achieved international status. Madge makes more hay with this work than with the Op. 22. There is about it the romantic nostalgie of Prokofiev's psychologically probing waltzes. In the Tragic Madge is nowhere near as fluent as in Hamelin's equivalent recording as part of the invaluable Hyperion sonata cycle. However there is still much to appreciate. Madge never leaves you intellectually starved.

The Second Concerto: The Second Concerto is dedicated to Rachmaninov whose own Third Concerto must have been ricocheting around Medtner's head at the time. Stupel and the Lodz orchestra play their hearts out in a work in which inspiration is memorable. Waltonian syncopation in step with the Oldham composer's contemporaneous Sinfonia Concertante can be heard in the first movement alongside a defiant gruffness familiar from Brahms' Tragic Overture and Schumann's Fourth Symphony. The first movement lasts 18 minutes - as long as the final section of the First. Madge contrives the return of the graceful understated theme at 13.02 treating it to a bluesy transformation at 15.33. The Divertissement finale skitters capriciously.

The Third Concerto is the strongest of the three with resilient ideas and more concentration and directional sense than its predecessors. It was premiered on 19 February 1944 at the Royal Albert Hall. It was conducted by Boult and the dedication was to the man who had offered to finance a recording of all of Medtner's music, Sir Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar, The Maharajah of Mysore. Medtner claimed a Lermontov plot for the music but we do better to listen qua music not qua storyline. Its subtitle, Ballade, is of course consistent and is a title common to many pieces in the Medtner catalogue - also appearing in other language variants such as Skazka and Conte. There is nothing as clumsy as a bar by bar storyline - the quintessence of a tale is Medtner's aim. The music encapsulates spirit: seduction, nobility, fantasy landscapes, heroism. We might be describing Bax's Winter Legends (also for piano and orchestra) but Medtner works in relation to bounds set by German romanticism (Schumann) fused with Rimskian liberation. Listen to the way Madge halts, slows, quietens, stills and animates the line at the start of the Finale - it is superbly done. Experimenters should sample the whole of the finale (CD2 track 6).

By the time of the premiere of the Ballade concerto Medtner had spent almost a decade in England. As will be apparent from the dates this is a wartime work. It is remarkable that Medtner's voice is as individual as ever; true to the same beacon-light that suffuses the First Concerto. The deciso staccato writing at the start of the Interludium is fascinating for its juxtaposition of such graven playing with lyrical fancy.

Listening to these concertos and to Madge I fervently hope that Hyperion will be persuaded to follow up their phenomenally successful set of the Medtner sonatas with the same composer's complete Ballades. Also if ever Madge showed even passing interest in recording the Piano Quintet or the four Rachmaninov concertos one of the companies would do well to step forward. Madge would also be a natural choice for the Alan Bush piano concerto, the six Sorabji concertos and the six by English Rachmaninov epigones, Roger Sacheverell Coke, Josef Holbrooke (three concertos) and York Bowen (four concertos).

We should doff our hats (metaphorical hats are permitted) to BIS for restoring this unjustly demeaned set to currency. It is available at a great price (2-for-1) and for the Medtner-curious it makes first recommendation for convenience and integrity of artistic values. The Hyperion pair of CDs is more intimate in sound and more equable; Tozer on Chandos is highly poetic and the composer on Testament has barely passable mono sound. Madge and his orchestra give the best approximation of a big concert hall sound and that with a scaled up epic set to the jaw.

Rob Barnett


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