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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto no.1 in B flat minor op.23 (1874-75, rev. 1889) [33:29]
Nikolai Karlovich MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor op.33 (1914-1918) [34:42]
Liebliches Kind!, from Nine Goethe Songs  op.6 (1904-1905), transcribed for solo piano by Yevgeny Sudbin [01:46]
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
Sāo Paulo Symphony Orchestra/John Neschling
rec. February 2006, Sala Sāo Paulo, Brazil
BIS SACD-1588 [71:16]

This is my first encounter with a major work by Medtner. This may not make me a very authoritative critic from one point of view. From another, I can put myself in the shoes of somebody wondering if Medtner is likely to interest him.
Quite definitely, I should say, if you want to hear a composer of originality, with a sound-world all his own, of his times but possibly out of joint with them. Forget anything you’ve heard about a “Russian Brahms”. Nothing here sounds remotely like Brahms to me. Forget, too, any idea of “Rachmaninov without the tunes”. Yes, there are references to the big-scale Russian romantic piano concerto but no, you couldn’t call the bold opening tuneless. Probably the one category of listener who should be wary is that which seeks a straightforward, unproblematic post-Rachmaninov piece of virtuoso barnstorming. Fantastic virtuosity is certainly required – and is provided here – but this is a work where nothing is quite what it seems.
The Rachmaninov concerto it most nearly resembles is the Fourth, especially in its more extensive first version – which nevertheless post-dates the Medtner First Concerto and might have taken its cue from it. Rachmaninov had the greatest admiration for Medtner as a composer. More than a romantic piano concerto, it is a concerto about the problems of composing a romantic piano concerto in a post-romantic world. The opening promises the full works, and on many occasions the orchestra seems to be preparing for a big gushing piano entry. Then when the piano comes in, its treatment of the theme is sardonically – or whimsically – different from what one might expect. At other times, the piano makes a big “romantic concerto” entrance when you’re not expecting it to. Round about half-way through the finale it sounds as if we’re hotting up for a typical Rachmaninov 2 conclusion, with soaring strings and feverish work from the pianist. But the moment dissolves. I won’t risk a spoiler by telling you what happens at the end, but it’s quite extraordinary.
I may have given you the idea of something weird and shapeless, yet it doesn’t actually sound like that. It sounds improvised, but improvised to a preordained scheme, as it were. Improvisation to a preordained scheme is a characteristic of Indian music, of course. Perhaps that is why the Maharajah of Mysore was sufficiently fascinated by Medtner to finance the first recordings of his works. For myself, it is a long time since I heard a work by a composer hitherto only a name to me, which has impressed me so much.
I’m also mightily impressed by the performance. If I don’t find here the complicated textures some people complain of in Medtner, this is no doubt because Sudbin makes everything crystal clear. He seems to know exactly which of the several strands our ears should be directed to. The melodies always have convincing shape and he lets us understand where each phrase is going.
The same may be said of John Neschling’s conducting. The Sāo Paulo Symphony Orchestra proves a fine band, with some excellent woodwind soloists and warm-sounding strings. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is beautifully clear.
I cannot imagine a better performance, but the downside of my newly-kindled enthusiasm is that I cannot tell you whether you will find at least its equal in the discs by Scherbakov (Naxos), Alexeev (Hyperion), Tozer (Chandos, deleted) or Zhukov (a recording from the Russian archives, I don’t know if it’s available now). All these except Zhukov come with more Medtner. I can only leave the reader to sort out whether the couplings here are helpful or not.
The tiny song-transcription did little for me, but I wouldn’t discourage Sudbin from making others. Perhaps a group of five or six would leave a more lasting impression.
Don’t make the mistake I made and listen to the Tchaikovsky immediately after the Medtner. After the latter’s complex world, Tchaikovsky’s language seemed simple and straightforward to a fault. I think the impression was also partly due to a delightful but swift, rather lightweight performance. Sudbin seems to take the view that Tchaikovsky was a sort of Russian Saint-Saëns. It’s certainly refreshing to hear the work shorn of bombast, without tearing passions to tatters. The slow movement, for example, has a grave charm as opposed to overpowering melancholy and the finale concludes with jubilation rather than rhetoric. I think my own preference would be for a larger-scale reading, but from its own point of view this is carried off perfectly, by the orchestra and conductor as well as the pianist.
One query. At the beginning of the slow movement the third note of the flute melody is altered so that it corresponds to the melody as played immediately afterwards by the piano. I have occasionally read about performances that do this, though no CD in my collection does so.
Sudbin’s love for these works extends to his writing extensive, readable and – especially for the Medtner – really helpful notes, printed in English, German and French. BIS, for their part, provide an excellent recording, which I heard as a normal CD.
Christopher Howell


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