Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Skazki Op.20 [6:34]
Sonata in B flat minor Sonata Romantica Op.53 No.1 [25:26]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42 [17:48]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.36 (performing edition by Steven Osborne) [24:11]
Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 21-23 December 2012
HYPERION CDA67936 [73:59]
It can never be easy being a composer for, as historian Jacob Burckhart points out, to achieve immortality a composer's music needs to be played after his death while an artist's paintings remain in museums for the public to see forever. Since new composers will always understandably want their time on the stage the result is that fewer composers from the past get to be heard by future generations. Perhaps that was the fear behind the agonised outpouring of Rachmaninov when he said 'I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien' adding that 'I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me'. He obviously felt that while his compatriots Stravinsky and Prokofiev were 'moving with the times' he couldn't and therefore after his death his music would fall out of fashion and be forgotten.
Over seventy years after his death we can say that his fear has not been realised and that his immortality seems assured. Perhaps it is perverse then to consider that Medtner's position is more precarious when he was far less troubled by the same fears that stalked his friend. He resolutely and fearlessly stuck to his ideas on composition which he defended in his writings. One can easily imagine him in musical terms embracing the sentiment behind the statement that Lillian Hellman made concerning her appearance before the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee) in 1952: 'I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions ...' As David Fanning points out in his booklet notes this led to those who were not enamoured of his music to regard him as being 'hopelessly out of touch'. This, coupled with his not becoming the champion of his own music in the same way as Rachmaninov by pursuing the same kind of performing career, also did him no favours. It was only the improbable intervention of the Maharajah of Mysore that initially assured the appearance on disc of some of his works. Fortunately his music is steadily becoming more widely known these days but it still has a long way to go before it achieves a status similar to that enjoyed by Rachmaninov's works. Once you have entered Medtner's world it is difficult not to recognise his style though there are often considerable similarities to those of his friend.
It is well documented that Russians who are forced to go into exile experience a particular longing for their native country. That can often be discerned in the music though the famous 'Russian soul' is imprinted in so much of its music anyway as it is in the first of Medtner's Skazka from his op.20 that opens this disc. David Fanning notes that Medtner suggested to a pupil that it should be played 'as if appealing to someone with a fervent entreaty' and indeed that is the sentiment that strongly comes across. The second is also highly descriptive with the bell in its title clearly ringing throughout its length.
As well as around three dozen Skazki, a genre Medtner was particularly fond of, he wrote fourteen piano sonatas; his Sonata Romantica is the twelfth of them. He composed it in 1930 and dearly wished to record it; a wish that unfortunately was never realised. The overriding impression Medtner's music leaves is its deceptive simplicity which is the feature that is most appealing to me. Here the waltz-like opening theme is soon taken to darker places. The second movement is a fast-paced scherzo that has suggestions of a Cossack dance while the third, slow movement, though shorter has a lot going on within its 200 second span. The long final movement seeks to summarise what has gone before by determinedly intertwining the various themes, making for dense passages demanding a great deal from the soloist. It was a revelation to me when I 'discovered' Medtner and I love everything of his I've heard.
Rachmaninov, as noted above, was full of self-doubt and when it was not concerning his inability to grasp the 'new' way of writing it was about the music itself. He suffered terribly following the catastrophic reception of his First Symphony which caused a kind of writers' block for some time. When it comes to the Variations on a theme of Corelli, the only piano work he wrote after leaving Russia shortly after the Revolution in December 1917, he was equally dissatisfied with it. When he performed it he often omitted some of the variations. In fact as the booklet notes remind us the theme, though used by Corelli in his violin sonata no.12, is not his own composition but the old dance melody La Folia which over the course of 300 years crops in as many as 150 composers' works, including those of Lully, Marin Marais, Alessandro Scarlatti, Geminiani, Handel, Bach and Liszt. That aside Rachmaninov's set of twenty variations is a brilliantly inventive one that extracts so much of the essence of the original that each variation is an absolutely unique piece in which the listener seems to be hearing echoes of the source for the first time every time.
A further example of Rachmaninov's lack of self-confidence is his mighty second piano sonata in B flat minor. He wrote it in 1913 but conducted a major revision of it in 1931 cutting a great deal of what he considered to be repetitive or over-elaborate. As David Fanning says, there has been a great deal of discussion among performers and musicologists as to the relative merits of each version and different performers select which they prefer playing. In addition they can opt for Horowitz's own conflation of the two versions or even, as pianist Steven Osborne has done, they can create their own which he has done here. It was fascinating to read Steven Osborne's explanation as to why he felt driven to make his own performing edition saying he felt that Rachmaninov's 1931 version created more problems than it solved. He also remarks that Horowitz's conflation was a more satisfactory distillation of the composer's ideas than either of the composer's own but that it still contained things which could be improved upon. Another really interesting point Osborne makes is that doing so seemed 'like a natural extension of the interpretive process'. He points out that performers used to do so a lot more. He puts that down to the fact that there were a lot more composer-performers like Rachmaninov (and to a lesser extent Medtner) than there are today when composers perform their own works publicly a lot less than in the past and regard their works as sacrosanct and not to be tampered with. In fact there are plenty of examples where works would benefit greatly from such a process and might even help increase their popularity.
What one can say is that Steven Osborne has made his performing edition out of love for the work, one of his favourite pieces to play, and has created a fantastically thrilling and ultimately enjoyable version of which one feels that Rachmaninov would have thoroughly approved. It is also, as you listen to it in the kind of detail one has to in order to review it, a profound experience and justification for Rachmaninov's music in spite of his own self doubt - if it were ever needed. It is indeed fortunate that he did not find ways of 'casting out the old way and acquiring the new'; that could be left to the likes of Stravinsky and Prokofiev who were brilliant in their own right but who couldn't have created the fabulous music Rachmaninov did any more than he could create works similar to theirs. If he were able to know what people feel today he would find that his music has not only passed the test of time but is appreciated more widely and performed more often than he could ever have imagined. This state of affairs will remain so well into the foreseeable, and likely into the unforeseeable, future. The sonata is pure emotion and, as David Fanning sums it up, full of 'desperate passion and transcendental sadness' and no one could express than better in music than the composer personified by Stravinsky as the 'six and a half foot long scowl'. While the music speaks for itself Osborne plays everything on the disc magnificently making the best and most cogent case for the music of these two not dissimilar composers who remained friends for all their lives despite their living so far apart.
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