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CD of the Week — Nikolai Medtner

By (June 6, 2012) No Comment

Nikolai Medtner: Piano Concertos and Solo Pieces

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) was the Rachmaninov who stayed behind in Russia when the big names went west after the 1917 revolutions. Similar in style and lugubrious temperament to his friend and mentor, he stuck around until 1921 before slipping away to Berlin and Paris, where he nearly starved.

Rachmaninov fixed him a North American tour in 1924, but Medtner’s insistence on playing his own music fell flat with audiences. He wound up from 1935 in England, where he won eccentric support from the Maharajah of Mysore, who paid for his works to be recorded by EMI.

Despite his self-exile and lack of popular success, Medtner was remembered in Russia for his initial loyalty and continued to be performed there in the years the Rachmaninov was banned – to the point where a Medtner tradition evolved. These rare recordings, retrieved from Soviet archives, feature Tatiana Nikolayeva in the first concerto and Abram Schatzkes in the second, both conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. The playing is of an order that cries out to be heard; the music itself may leave you in two minds.

Nikolayeva, the famed champion of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, cannot prevent the opening and other sections of Medtner’s C-minor concerto from sounding as if they were hacked from the same forest as Rachmaninov’s C-minor. In a single movement lasting 37 minutes, written between 1914 and 1918, the concerto lacks enough originality for its length, let alone a heart-bender theme that might imprint it forever on the listener’s memory. Nikolayeva, heedless of such shortcomings, plays it like a deathless masterpiece with a contemplative oasis at its centre. She is even more compelling in the solo pieces that follow, a master-pianist who hears no voice but her inner self.

Schatzkes, a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, was one of many fine Jewish artists who were kept out of the limelight by the Soviet regime. His playing of the second concerto, also in C minor, is more playful than Nikolayeva’s. The central Romanza movement owes something to Rachmaninov’s preludes but the finale proclaims an altogether individual and unexpected exuberance. I have never heard Medtner sound so sunny and spirited. The ensuing sonata, op 38/1, is another of those rapt oases. Those who stayed in Russia understood this music best.

Three more Russian discoveries

Nikolai Rakov: Works for Violin and Piano

Rakov (1908-90) steered a deft course between Soviet expectations – he won the 1946 Stalin Prize – and his romantic inclinations, notably toward the Franck sonata. Both tendencies are evenly displayed here by David Frühwirth and Milana Chernyavska.

Alfred Schnittke: 12 Penitential Psalms; Voices of Nature

Schnittke’s vocal writing, rarely heard, sounds like no other composer’s. Atonal at times, organic at others, it has both wit and spirituality, the unlikeliest of blends. If your ears need a rest from middle-of-the-road Eric Whitacre, start here.

Verdi Requiem

An all-Russian Requiem with Galina Vishnevskaya at the centre might send you scuttling for the nearest nuclear bunker with a bottle of iced vodka. Hold on. This 1960 Moscow concert, conducted by Igor Markevitch, is among the most thrilling Requiems I have heard since Giulini’s – knife-edge tempi, thunderous choirs and Nina Isakova, Vladmimir Ivanovsky and Ivan Petrov with Galina on the frontline in all-out assault. It was Markevitch’s first return to his native land since 1935 and the energy is sensational. Must be heard to be believed.

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