NIKOLAI MEDTNER: THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT UNKNOWN COMPOSERS?

posted May 28, 2013, 9:14 AM by Aaron Maass   [ updated May 28, 2013, 5:11 PM by charles billington ]

NIKOLAI MEDTNER:

THE GREATEST OF THE

GREAT UNKNOWN COMPOSERS?

       The widely accepted short list of great twentieth century Russian composers consists of Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff.  It is time to expand the list to four, adding the composer/pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff himself hailed as a genius, Nikolai Medtner.

       Medtner was born in Moscow in 1880.  His family was prosperous, and Medtner grew up in a home that valued art and culture.  While his ancestors were Germans who had settled in the Baltics, Medtner embraced his Russian identity throughout his life.  At the Moscow Conservatory, where his accomplishments were legendary, he studied piano with Franz Liszt’s protégé Paul Pabst and composition with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev. 

      An initial hearing of Medtner’s works can be underwhelming.  There is a thickness to his scores.  His musical ideas often sound heavy and serious, and he can build tension to very uncomfortable levels, especially in the beginning of some works.  Many pianists (including this writer) are initially intimidated by how difficult many of his compositions are; some of Medtner’s works are virtually unplayable to even the most capable pianists. However, an individual taking the time to become familiar with Medtner and his art – a week or ten days of faithful listening to some selected works would do it – will be richly rewarded.  Medtner is often profound and poignant at the same time, and none of his works could ever be mistaken as a composition by someone else.  The excellent renditions of Geoffrey Tozer in five works from Volume Two of The Piano Works of Nicolai Medtner (Chandos 9153) serve as good examples. The following is a brief analysis of Medtner’s Danza Graziosa, Danza Festiva, Contes #3 in A, Contes #6 in G, and the first and third works in his majestic Sonata Triad.

      The first two works of Opus 38, Forgotten Melodies, are the Danza Graziosa  and the Danza Festiva.  These were written in 1920, right after the Russian Revolution, when the comfortable, urbane culture with which Medtner was so familiar had completely vanished. Yet the Danza Graziosa comes off as a touching reminiscence, with clever syncopations and rhythms whose inspiration could have been anything from street musicians in St. Petersburg to a  folk song from rural Georgia .

     The Danza Festiva dazzles from beginning to end.  The difficulty of the work is only surpassed by its originality.  After the bravura opening theme is played through twice, Medtner (at the 2:10  point in Tozer’s recording) embarks on a disarmingly infectious cantabile, with the left hand playing a dotted-rhythmic 3/4  accompaniment to the right hand’s 4/4 rubato theme.  This creation is one of those Medtner listening moments when one stops what he is doing, tries to figure out what was just heard, and then cannot stop thinking about it for the next few hours. Medtner next takes this  three-against-four motif, doubles the tempo, and asks the pianist to play it again--but with the right hand playing triplets! Welcome to the world of Medtner’s unplayable music. As if to give the hands a rest, the same theme is transformed into a densely chorded Chorale, before ending with a cheerfully dizzying conclusion. The Danza Festiva is one of Medtner’s most brilliant works, as immediately approachable for the listener as it is impossible for the pianist. 

     Medtner’s  Opus 51, Six Contes (Tales) was written in 1927, when he returned to his new home of Paris after visiting his hometown of Moscow, depressingly different under Soviet rule..  The third in A Major and the sixth in G major both show Medtner at his finest as a composer and pianist.  The clever variations of the A major triad in the third Conte and the rhythmic repeated-note figurations in the sixth are impressive, even  upon first hearing, and  are excellent examples of his originality.  Medtner wrote 38 Contes during his lifetime, and these works are also cataloged as Skazkis, Songs, or (by his publisher to boost public acceptance) Fairy Tales.

     Medtner wrote fourteen sonatas for piano, and the Sonata Triad, Opus 11, is a collection of three of them.  The work opens with an inscription from Goethe’s three-part poem The Trilogy of Passion. Its titles reveal the meaning of this triad of sonatas: To Werther, Elegy, and Reconciliation.   Medtner opens the A flat Sonata (To Werther)  with a nonchalant, rather indifferent four-note theme that is posed as an interrogatory, with a baritone-voiced answer soon following. He builds upon this motif, never resolving it satisfactorily, and this beginning becomes a good example of Medtner raising  musical tension levels to unbearable dimensions, complete with sinister, descending chromatics and pounding rhythms.  At 1:30 on Tozer’s recording the tension finally breaks, thanks to a guitar-like triplet rhythm in A flat, and the main theme, with a surprisingly Castilian flavor, bursts forth.  Medtner spends the next nine minutes reshaping and shading this interesting motif with a variety of innovative and very agreeable musical ideas. 

   The third sonata of this Triad  (Reconciliation) is probably the most emotionally indelible composition Medtner wrote.  There is an air of resigned contentment throughout the work, and it very much sounds like the creation of an older gentleman in the late stages of a final autumn, yet Medtner wrote this work at the ripe young age of only 24.   After an engaging 45 second introduction,  Medtner provides one of those I-must-hear-that-again-right now  moments, with the most beautiful musical idea he wrote. It is a sixteen-bar passage in G major, concentrated on a simple three-note (G-A-B) theme, with each phrase repeated in an enchanting (but also haunting) echo in the form of a tenor and soprano duet.  Medtner returns to this spellbinding passage three times in the work, and as one becomes familiar with the piece, it becomes very gratifying  just to wait for it to reappear.  If this sonata has a shortcoming, it is the ending, a collection of brief  musical ideas that the young Medtner seemingly felt he just simply had put in this work, instead of developing them as individual compositions later on.  Be that as it may, this is great music, as profound and touching as anything Brahms or Rachmaninoff wrote, pulling the emotional strings of the listener that other composers’ works rarely even touch.

    There are so many other works worth mentioning.  If Nicolai Medtner is in the team portrait as the greatest of the great unknown composers, it is high time for music aficionados to pay attention to his art, so he can rightly pose with the great composers, and  no longer be “unknown.”

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