Madge’s Marvelous Medtner

BIS-CD-1258 cover

MEDTNER: Piano concerti Nos. 1-3.* Piano sonata in G min. Sonata reminiscenza in A min. Sonata tragica in C min. / Geoffrey Douglas Madge, pno; *Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orch.; Ilya Stupel, cond / Bis CD-1258

Having explored Geoffrey Douglas Madge’s output beyond Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, I ran across this interesting album from 1991/2001 (it has two copyright dates on the CD inlay) of the music of one of my favorite late-Romantic Russian composers, Nikolai Medtner.

Poor Medtner never really stood a chance. Born into a wealthy family of intellectuals in 1880,  he came of age and blossomed before the Communist Revolution of 1917, as did his older colleague Sergei Rachmaninov (who was born in 1873), but whereas Rachmaninov wrote popular, tuneful pieces that people could hum on their way out of the concert hall, Medtner wrote complex works that, though rooted in tonality, had modernist leanings. His pieces also lacked memorable tunes, which classical audiences didn’t like.

MedtnerAfter he himself got the hell out of the Soviet Union, Rachmaninov helped get Medtner, whose music he valued very highly, out as well. With his help, Medtner gave 1924 concert tours of the United States and Canada, but the proud younger composer mostly played his own music, and its lack of popular appeal turned audiences off. Eventually Medtner landed in Great Britain, where he spent the rest of his life. The Maharajah of Mysore, Jay Badahur, who was also a British Peer of the Realm, set up a Medtner Society of British patrons to guarantee a certain number of record sales to allow Medtner to record his own works for EMI in 1949-50 (similar Societies had been set up by EMI itself in the early 1930s to record the songs of Hugo Wolf by various famous artists and a Beethoven Society to record that composer’s complete piano sonatas played by Artur Schnabel). But Medtner never established himself as a concert artist in England, either, and died destitute in 1951.

I was eventually able to track down most of the Medtner EMI recordings, which are marvelous except for their dated mono sound, and became enthralled by his unusual music. He took Romantic themes and moved them around in a somewhat modern fashion, using octave leaps and several Scriabin-like harmonies within his basically tonal framework. And although his melodic lines were not highly memorable, they were distinctly Russian. Medtner’s “problem,” then, was that he was too Romantic to suit many followers of modern music but too quirky and individual to please aficionados of Romantic piano music, yet he was very highly regarded by fellow composers, particularly Kaikhosru Sorabji who recommended his music to Madge in their conversations of the late 1970s.

Listening to these recordings, I’m pleased to say that Madge fully “got” Medtner’s style. He plays with a similar combination of elegance and Russian vigor, and it’s a real pleasure to hear these works in modern digital sound, though I still wish that some modern pianist(s) would also take up Medtner’s cause and record more of his solo piano oeuvre. As someone who was alive at the same time as Scriabin—he was 35 years old when Scriabin died—it seems obvious to me that be absorbed a great deal from that early radical composer. Remembering that Scriabin himself started out in a very Romantic style based heavily on Chopin, it is easy to hear in Medtner’s music a similar aesthetic. His use of harmony and passing tones sound like mid-period Scriabin, just before he discovered those extended chords that launched him into the Poem of Ecstasy and the late sonatas, a leap that Medtner never made himself, but by remaining true to his own style he created some remarkable large structures. One such is the superb finale of the Piano Concerto No. 1, which lasts an incredible 18 minutes, within which Medtner uses astonishing cross-rhythms (some of them extremely difficult to play…trust me!) that would never have occurred to Rachmaninov in a million years. (The only Rachmaninov compositions that, to my ears, sound something like Medtner are his Prelude in C# minor, Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Vespers.) And yet, within that same third movement, the orchestra’s strings sing out a rhapsodic Russian melody as if to contrast the more advanced solo piano part. I should also add praise for conductor Ilya Stupel and the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic, neither of which I had ever heard of prior to hearing this release. Their string section doesn’t quite have the warm, luscious tone that the legendary Philharmonia Orchestra did on Medtner’s original recordings, but by golly they try their best.

The first CD is filled out by three piano sonatas: the first in G minor from 1911, the second in A minor from 1919, and the third the Sonata Tragica in C minor from 1919-20.. Here, unencumbered by an orchestra, Medtner gave his musical imagination and phenomenal technique free rein, and in these works one can clearly hear his debt to Scriabin without sacrificing his own musical identity. One of the more remarkable aspects of Medtner’s work, which may have been one of the things that impressed Sorabji, was the complete independence of his hands. The left hand only rarely acts as an “accompaniment” to the right; more often, his two hands are playing completely opposing melodies, figures and sometimes rhythms. This sort of thing may have been what unsettled many more conservative concertgoers in his time. They just weren’t used to music in which both harmony and rhythm always seemed to be in a state of flux, rather than clearly and comfortably settled in the home tonality (and rhythm). Medtner also sometimes used descending chromatic figures in which the harmony “fell” through trap doors, and this, too unsettled the average listener.

The Sonata Tragica is perhaps the most modern and rhythmically complex of the three presented here, and Madge handles it extremely well. There is so much going on in this piece that it will take you at least a couple of listening to catch it all. Similarly, the second Piano Concerto is an advance on the first. Written between 1920 and 1927, it has some of his most interesting piano music and the orchestral part, though largely within the Romantic tradition, has more bite and drive. The motor rhythms he sets up in the first movement in particular are simply phenomenal, and by this time his penchant for strong and exciting cross-rhythms had reached its maturity.

Medtner’s Third Piano Concerto was his last major work, written in London between 1940 and 1943 and premiered by him in 1944. Even by this time, Medtner was so broke that he had to accept the charity of one of his devoted pupils, Edna Iles, who gave him a place to live. Although an interesting work, it is not a stylistic advance on his Second Concerto. By this point in his life, now in his sixties and beginning to suffer poor health, Medtner continued along the same lines, but was still good enough to produce a very fine work.

I still wish that some enterprising pianist will take up Medtner’s cause. We need really good recordings of all of his songs (with an excellent singer to do them), and we can always use a first-rate interpretation of his marvelous short piano pieces which he grouped under the title Fairy Tales.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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