Nikolay MEDTNER (1880-1951) Complete Piano Sonatas 2
Sonata-triad, Op.11 (1904-08) [28:31]
Sonata-skazka in C minor, Op.25, no.1 (1910-11) [13:39]
Sonata-idyll in G major, Op.56 (1935-37) [13:13]
Paul Stewart (piano)
rec. March 2015 (opp. 11 & 25), October, 2015 (op. 56), Salle Claude Champagne, Montréal, Québec, Canada GRAND PIANO GP618 [55:23]
Looking back at two previous reviews I’ve written about the piano music of Medtner, I single out for repetition something his lifelong friend Rachmaninov said of his music, namely that Medtner ‘from the very beginning published works that it would be hard for him to equal in later life’. That seems particularly apt here, where the first item on the disc, the substantial Sonata-triad, Op.11, was penned when he was in his twenties and which is so profound in its sentiment, while the last, his Sonata-idyll in G major, Op.56, when he was in his mid-50s. Medtner seemed to emerge as a composer fully formed, and if he found it difficult to improve upon his early works, for me all his compositions are of equal value; such is my admiration for them. Pianist Paul Stewart considers his 14 piano sonatas, which were written throughout his composing life (from his opus 5 to his opus 56), as ‘the most significant achievement in this genre by any major composer since Beethoven’; praise indeed, and he is not alone in this opinion.
When around 1948 my father pointed out a road near Golders Green tube station in London and told me that “a famous composer lives down there” I had no idea of his music and I’m not sure, at that point, how my father would have known too much about him, since I’m sure very little of it had been widely available at that time, particularly on records. Medtner unfortunately and undeservedly never achieved the degree of success that he had hoped for, when he left Russia, eventually ending up in London. Unwilling to relinquish his attachment to romantically inspired music for the newly emerging avant-garde approach, he suffered much more than his friend Rachmaninov did, who had stuck to his style of writing just as resolutely. It was only the improbable intervention of the noted philosopher, musicologist, political thinker and philanthropist Maharaja Sri Sir Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahadur, the 25th and last Maharaja of Mysore, who championed Medtner’s music, ensuring that a great deal was published and recorded that otherwise might not have seen the light of day. However, this assistance came towards the end of Medtner’s life (the Maharaja founded The Medtner Society in 1949), including paying for the recording of all three of Medtner’s piano concertos, the last of which Medtner dedicated to the Maharaja.
The Sonata-triad, Op.11 is, as the title suggests, a series of three sonatas published under a single opus number, all of which written in 1906. Paul Stewart in his accompanying notes quotes Goethe’s poem Aussöhnung (Reconciliation), which the poet wrote to express his crestfallen feelings of loss, due to a hopeless infatuation with a young Polish pianist, which mirrored Medtner’s feelings, also caused by lost love. Medtner had since adolescence been in love with violinist Anna Bratenskaya, yet somehow, despite his love for her being reciprocated, she ended up married to Medtner’s own brother Emil. Feeling bereft and devastated, he sought solace in expressing his state of mind in music. He had almost completed the three sonatas, when Anna’s brother Andrey committed suicide, leading to Medtner dedicating the three works to his memory. In fact only the central sonata, Sonata-Elegy, directly relates to this tragic event. Paul Stewart sums up what the trio of sonatas expresses, namely ‘Passion, suffering, resignation to reality, redemption through music and love...Medtner’s Sonata-triad translates into sound what Goethe’s poem expresses in words.’ The impetus of these events in Medtner’s life has given us a work of staggering emotion and depth; small wonder he could not surpass the writing in future compositions, though for my money he equalled it in every other one. When you get to grips with his music it is unmistakable.
The first of two sonatas Medtner wrote two years after his op.11, his Sonata-skazka in C minor, is one that falls into the collection of skazka, of which he composed many. As Paul Stewart writes, it is usually translated as a fairy tale, while legend might be more accurate. In any event the music takes on a dreamy, often whimsical air, which always allows for music of deceptive simplicity to deliver the most beautiful melodies which, for me, is Medtner’s particular strength and signature style.
His final piano sonata, written in 1935 in Paris and completed in London, where it received its first performance in 1939, is certainly a magnificent way to end this form of writing. It is a mystery to me as to why he did not write any more, since he obviously found the sonata a perfect medium for expressing his ideas, not to mention his emotions. Equally, as I said earlier, the maturity he showed in all his solo piano music, makes it impossible to guess, which was written when in his compositional life and this could have been composed at any time in his career, just as the early ones could have been written much later. It shows his characteristic and unique flair for penning the most gorgeous melodies, which he weaves into a musical fabric that gives guaranteed satisfaction every time.
Paul Stewart’s love and admiration for Medtner’s music come through strongly in these performances, which require a great range of treatment from the gentlest of touches, sometimes merely brushing the keys, whilst at others displaying a towering emotional intensity. His ability to bring out the poetry in Medtner is impressive and the recording is crisp, which combination makes for a hugely satisfying experience.