Pianist Paul Stewart and the Road to Medtner Print E-mail
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Written by Colin Clarke   
Friday, 31 May 2013

Pianist Paul Stewart and the Road to Medtner

After hearing Paul Stewart’s discs of Medtner (reviewed below), I was alerted to a musician of the highest intellect. I also heard Naxos discs of Medtner and Honegger (with violinist Lawrence Kayaleh), Elgar/Strauss/Ravel (with violinist Jonathan Crow), Schubert Songs and Transcriptions (with Kevin McMillan), and Britten ( Young Apollo , Chandos). I was anxious to find out how Stewart’s career began in earnest, and his Naxos biography seems to refer to his debut with the Toronto Symphony as a turning point. . .

“A few months before that debut, which was with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1, I was given a lucky opportunity to play Gershwin’s Concerto in F at a Toronto Symphony Pops Concert, replacing an indisposed pianist on just a couple of days’ notice. I was still doing an undergraduate degree in Montréal and was not very experienced as a performer, but had just played the Gershwin at a university competition, and the pianist in question knew of this. He recommended me to the Toronto Symphony. On the day of the concert I took the early-morning train to Toronto, did the rehearsal—really more of a quick run-through—and played the concert that evening. It was in old Massey Hall, a gorgeous, warm, acoustically perfect hall that Rubenstein used to say was one of his favorite venues in which to play. It was my first experience with a major professional orchestra and, despite the day being Friday the 13th, things went extremely well! I was invited back a few months later to make a proper debut, with a concerto of my choice. Initially I wanted to do something less-known, like Britten’s Piano Concerto, but was persuaded the Tchaikovsky would make a better first-impression. The critics were enthusiastic, and that basically started my career. The conductor was James DePreist, who was a nephew of the great Marion Anderson. We got on very well and talked much about his legendary aunt. It was a very exciting experience, and led to engagements with all our major orchestras, and some in the U.S.A.”

The lead up to this debut included lessons with Michelangeli, no less; earlier with the Hungarian professor Charles Reiner. “I studied with Charles Reiner for about four years in Montréal. He was a remarkable man, a Hungarian Jew who, barely a teenager when the war started, was shipped off and interned in a work camp in Austria. He somehow survived—the stories he told me were horrifying—and when war ended he managed to put his life back together. He was from a musical family (Fritz Reiner was a relative) and as a young pianist won a scholarship to work in Switzerland with the great Dinu Lipatti. Charles later immigrated to Canada and taught for many years at McGill. He was close friends with Henryk Szeryng, Ruggiero Ricci, and Pierre Fournier and frequently played important recitals with them, at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere, and he would always arrange tickets for his students to hear him in action with these legends. Charles was an old-world gentleman and an old-school pianist. There was a lot of Lipatti’s aesthetic in his own playing and teaching. Good taste, beauty of tone, and a wide palette of color were stressed above all. If it wasn’t beautiful, if it didn’t “sing” or “tell a story”, it wasn’t good! His gods were Rubenstein, Rachmaninoff, Moiseiwitsch (with whom he also studied), Horowitz, Lipatti of course, Arrau, and the other great pianists of that time, and they are my gods also.

“The connection with Michelangeli was the result of a chance meeting during one of several prolonged stays I had in Italy in the ’80s. I had worked a bit with Guido Agosti, Busoni’s last student and, when I happened to casually meet Michelangeli one day, I dropped Agosti’s name, which made a good impression! He was in semi-retirement and, as you know, reclusive and extremely private, but we seemed to get on well, and had regular meetings over several months. He was preparing recordings, mainly of Debussy, and would play excerpts for me. His ear and control were super-human, not to mention his range of dynamics, subtlety of pedaling, etc. Interestingly, he taught a lot like Reiner did, with images, colors. “Play that green” he would say, pointing to a particular shade in a painting on his wall, or “I want to hear that blue.” Not technique per se, though he emphasized the supremacy of the ear, how listening was everything. Also, he was adamant about the importance of an artist opening himself up to the world, to read, to travel, to discover, to know at least a little about everything. We talked a great deal about favorite artists, especially the early Italian Renaissance masters (he adored Giotto, Duccio, Fra Angelico), and also about his great passion for sports cars! It was a civilizing, enriching experience to be in his presence.”

Then there are other studies in London. “I had played in a master class given by Kendall Taylor in Montréal, in 1979. I played Fauré’s Sixth Nocturne and I loved the advice he gave me, his scholarly approach, and the seriousness with which he took every minute indication in the score. It was a lesson in how to be musical, make a personal statement, yet be respectful of a composer’s intentions and the appropriate style. He was also a friend of Reiner’s and so after graduating from McGill, and with Reiner’s blessing, I went off to study with Taylor at the Royal College. I found digs in Wimbledon near to where Taylor lived, and most of our lessons were held at his home. They were more exacting and demanding than anything I had ever experienced before, but I welcomed the discipline—indeed, desperately needed it! Taylor was well into his 70s by then, but a force of nature, passionate and inspiring. He was a renowned Beethoven expert—his edition of the sonatas is probably the best there is—so I tried to benefit as much as possible from his profound knowledge of, in particular, the sonatas. I’m a good sight-reader and quick learner, so we managed to cover a huge amount of repertoire during that time, most of the Beethoven sonatas, much Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, many concertos, and a lot of what was “contemporary” in Taylor’s day, Szymanowski, Barber, Bartók…and Cyril Scott, whose First Piano Concerto he had championed in the 1940s. Taylor was a stickler for structuring, and we worked tirelessly on the architecture of a work, never allowing the line to relax until the overall plan permitted it.”

And linking to the London element (apologies, readers, I am hopelessly biased) I ask about Stewart’s recitals at the Wigmore Hall. “Yes, I had two opportunities to play recitals in the Wigmore Hall, the first in early 1989—but exactly one week before the recital, I slipped on an icy Montréal street and broke my right arm! So it wasn’t until 1995 that I finally played there. It was a Rachmaninoff-Medtner program, a sort of celebration of these two composers and their enduring friendship of over 40 years. A very memorable experience playing in such a historically important hall. So humbling to be backstage and see the photos of the greats who had performed there over the years, including Rachmaninoff and Medtner themselves!”

Although Medtner is the main thrust of this interview, Stewart’s discography is quite wide, so I want to spend some time on the rest of his work. The Naxos Honegger disc intrigues me particularly. “This was suggested as a possible recording project, the repertoire being seldom heard either live or on disc. I knew Honegger’s orchestral and choral music, and a few songs, but little else. I must say I was not expecting works of such high quality, but I soon fell in love with them. All four sonatas are quite different in style, but each are evidence of a composer possessing great skill, craft, imagination, and one who found a quite unique voice. His music very much reflects the troubled era in which it was composed, especially the ‘official’ Sonata No. 1, a powerful, ominous masterpiece.”

Also, both Stewart and Jonathan Crow show a very real affinity for the Elgar Violin Sonata (Atma 2534). It’s a fine performance, one that honors that particularly English reflectiveness without wallowing in it. How did they approach this piece? “Exactly by not wallowing in it! A particular danger with a composer like Elgar, where the temptation is to prolong the touching details that abound and overdo the climatic moments—but losing sight of the overall shape is fatal, the music sags and sounds ‘pretty.’ I had heard performances of this sonata that fell into that trap, indeed was not convinced of its merits until tackling it myself and seeing it for the masterpiece it is. As with all repertoire, the best approach is to first understand the work as an organic and planned whole, then consider the details within that context. The English ‘accent’ seemed to come naturally to us, perhaps because of our British-Scottish roots, perhaps because Elgar’s love for nature comes through in his music, something to which Canadians can certainly respond! I adore Elgar, the symphonies, the choral works, the Piano Quintet…what a pity he wrote so little of significance for piano solo.” Putting the Strauss right next to it works perfectly as the two composers are more linked than one might think on first glance: Strauss operates on a heroic plane; the nostalgia of the slow movement seems to link to the Elgar. “Yes, and I would say that, besides nostalgia, there are also certainly elements of heroism in Elgar, even if it’s of an older composer looking back somewhat regretfully at his life. Strauss’s heroism is of the here and now, and though it is an early work, this sonata has so much of the Strauss to come, of Ein Heldenleben, Rosenkavalier and so on. It is also a truly virtuosic piece for both violinist and pianist, but if that side of it is emphasized the work can sound shallow, a mere showpiece. So, as with Elgar, we worked on the architecture of each movement first and tried not to lose sight of the main arch.”

There is a Schubert disc called An die Musik (Musica Viva 1106) which is delightful. Whose idea was it to mix the sung Lieder with the various arrangements (Liszt, Godowsky, Heller, and Gerald Moore)? “I’m not much of a singer, but I come from a vocal background. My father was an excellent tenor and our town in Nova Scotia is where the first Scots arrived, in 1773. It is Scottish through and through, with a strong choral tradition in the churches, an annual folk-song festival, etc. My father had a small but select collection of 78s and early LPs, mainly of the great singers of the past, in both opera and art song. Marion Anderson singing Schubert’s Aufenthalt and Ave Maria was among them. Partly to be able to play on the piano the arias and songs I particularly loved, partly because I was always encouraged to “sing” at the piano, early on I discovered the vast transcription and arrangement repertoire—if you look hard enough, you will find practically everything arranged for piano or piano four-hands: symphonies, operas, string quartets, songs. Liszt was of course the best known transcriber, but over the years, exploring libraries and archives I collected hundreds of piano arrangements of, for example, Schubert songs, as good as or even better than Liszt’s. Many were by minor figures, such as Stephen Heller, but they are surprisingly good and a lot of fun to play. Heller’s Die Forelle deftly captures the capriciousness and naïveté of the song, whereas I’ve always found Liszt’s a little heavy-handed, the virtuosity too forced. One might say his trout sinks, Heller’s floats! Godowsky tended to overdo things as well in his transcriptions, but those we chose for this disc are real gems. The baritone, Kevin McMillan, and I devised a project which we thought would be unusual and edifying at the same time, juxtaposing the original songs with their arrangements for piano solo. All in all it was a pleasure exploring this marginal but captivating repertoire and giving some of these transcriptions their first recordings.”

And more British music, this time Britten ( Young Apollo ). How did that come about? “Britten is another passion of mine. I’ve performed all his solo piano works, the Concerto, Diversions , the Scottish Ballad, the song cycles, the Canticles …even the piano part in Noye’s Fludde! Young Apollo , as it turns out, has a Canadian connection: It was commissioned by our CBC and given a single performance by the composer himself in the summer of 1939, in Toronto, before he withdrew it. Britten wrote it in the little town of St. Jovite, just north of Montréal, where he spent several months before his more famous exile in the U.S. He also completed his Violin Concerto there. (I once went to St. Jovite and searched everywhere for records of his stay, perusing the Town Hall archives, asking older residents…no one had the foggiest idea what I was talking about. There should at least be a plaque on the house where he lived!) The score disappeared after that sole performance and was only published after Britten’s death. I knew the piece and suggested it to Yuli Turovsky, whose string orchestra was preparing an all-Britten recording for Chandos. It fit the project perfectly. Although Britten was obviously dissatisfied with it, Young Apollo is a striking, brilliant work, with much imaginative writing for both strings and piano, and—this may be purely fanciful—I think it sounds extremely Canadian! The energy, the dazzling depiction of sunshine, the wide-open spaces one hears in this score, all this indicates a young Britten very much enjoying his first experience of North America.”

And so to Medtner, a composer clearly important to Stewart. I’m intrigued to find out more about the fascination. “Medtner has popped in and out of my life like a bad penny, and in the most unexpected places. I was about eight or nine when I came across a Fairy Tale that was relatively easy to play, and I learned it for a conservatory exam. I remember the tempo indication was Narrante which, my teacher explained, meant ‘to narrate,’ to tell a story, and I think that appealed to me. Maybe 10 years later, a fellow pianist at McGill played the Sonata-Reminiscenza for me…and I was hooked. There were few of Medtner’s scores in print, no biographies and practically no recordings, though our university library contained an LP of various works played by Hamish Milne, whom I still consider one of Medtner’s truly outstanding interpreters. Little by little I collected scores, more recordings, Medtner’s fascinating little book, The Muse and the Fashion ….Then, in the early 1990s, two fateful meetings clinched it: The first was with an elderly lady in Montréal whose late husband had been, amazingly, one of Medtner’s closest friends! She told me Medtner had stayed at their home in the 1920s and had played recitals here and elsewhere in Québec. The second meeting came a bit later, during an Asian concert tour. I was playing a recital in the south Indian city of Bangalore, after which a very regal lady introduced herself and invited me to lunch. Her name was Rani Vijaya Devi, and it turned out she was the sister of the last Maharaja of Mysore, Medtner’s patron in the 1940s! She herself had been a pianist, had played for both Medtner and Rachmaninoff and had been married to the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, where she had been a student of Eduard Steuermann—as she recounted one astonishing story after another, our lunch was extended to tea and then dinner, while I just sat there gobsmacked 1 . She showed me a delightful photograph of herself and her brother, taken in Switzerland in 1939, when they had gone to pay Rachmaninoff a visit; it is, I think, one of the only photographs in existence where the usually dour composer is beaming from cheek to cheek! She also gave me permission to examine her brother’s library in the Mysore Palace and I found rare scores, recordings by Medtner himself, photos, and a great deal of correspondence between him and the Maharaja. So, one might say my Medtner connection was in the stars! After this last coincidental meeting I decided to dedicate a large part of my career to researching and performing his works. My first Medtner disc was dedicated to Rani Vijaya Devi. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but I cherish our many years of correspondence and long, fascinating talks, and I’m often in touch with her daughter.”

1 After a Facebook poll of my U.S. and Canada-based friends, all of whom attest to ignorance of this word in their native territories, I assumed that the word “gobsmacked” has slithered its way into Mr. Stewart’s vocabulary as a result of his travels to the U of K. However, he assures me that Canadians on the East Coast use of it always felt unfair. Geographically, it seems more linked to the Northern part of England (imagine it in a Manchester accent, if you will: If in doubt how a Manchester accent sounds, please search for Coronation Street on YouTube). For those that don’t know, “gobsmacked” means what it describes, as long as one understands that gob = mouth. It indicates complete and utter, cartoon-like surprise and disbelief.

I comment that Medtner is so often just lumped together with Rachmaninoff by commentators, which has always felt unfair. I ask Stewart to comment. “There are obvious similarities, they both were close contemporaries and students of the Moscow Conservatory, sharing some of the same teachers. They breathed the same air…but Medtner had compositional skills that surpassed those of his peers, including Rachmaninoff (who admitted this, considering Medtner much his superior as a composer). Although his music is undeniably Russian in sound and spirit, his roots have to be traced to more Germanic sources: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. Indeed, in his lifetime he was often referred to as the ‘Russian Brahms,’ a description he disliked, considering himself more the spiritual heir of Beethoven. He had an innate instinct for constructing form and handling material, something that seems to have come very naturally to him. There is a famous story that Taneyev, so impressed by his student’s handling of classical structures, described him as having been ‘born with sonata-form coursing through his veins.’ Again, although his music is definitely ‘Russian’ sounding, and he was no slouch when it came to writing full-bodied melody, there is an intellectual balance, and a complete mastery of form, that distinguishes him from almost everyone else from that era.”

Of course there are Medtner’s own piano recordings of his own music. There is the remarkable series on APR, for example—the original recordings were under the auspices of the Maharajah of Mysore. Did Stewart refer to his recordings at all in his preparation? “We are fortunate indeed to have these remarkable recordings. They were issued originally on 78 rpm and never transferred to the LP format, so were largely unavailable to the public for over 50 years. The Maharaja’s intention was for Medtner to eventually record ALL his works for HMV, but Medtner’s health became increasingly fragile during the project, and he died before such an ambitious undertaking could be realized. Still, he managed to record a staggering amount of music, from 1947 to 1950: all three of his piano concertos with the Philharmonia, pianos sonatas and the Sonata-Vocalise (with Margaret Ritchie), the First Violin Sonata, some Fairy Tales and other short pieces, songs with various singers (including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) and, at the very end of the project, when Medtner’s heart condition did not allow for more than an hour or so of playing a day, his glorious Piano Quintet, one of his last completed works and a summing up of his life and convictions. Each one of these recordings is evidence of a lion of a pianist at work, an outstanding musician with all the authority and imagination that characterized the major pianists of the day. And what a treasure for anyone learning his works—there is, after all, only so much that can be notated in a score! I have most certainly referred to his recordings, and it is fascinating to discover how true he was to his own fastidious markings, but also how free he could be: Although there is a strong, sure sense of pulse, there is freedom within that pulse. Sempre al rigor di tempo is a frequent indication in his scores, but man is not a machine, music should never be square and rigid. Medtner shows us, in these wonderful recordings, how to achieve the most subtle give-and-take within the rhythmical structure.

“Alas, there is only one recording in existence of another composer’s music as played by Medtner: a magisterial Appassionata , recorded in 1946. His Beethoven playing was considered authoritative in his day, and this is borne out by this interpretation. One cannot imagine a more noble Appassionata. It is yet another example of Medtner achieving architectural unity, so vital in Beethoven, along with a vivid attention to detail, breathing space and freedom within pulse. Someday I hope other recordings of live concerts as broadcast by the BBC will turn up, especially his celebrated interpretation of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, with Medtner’s own cadenzas, which could very well exist buried in the vaults.”

So why has Medtner’s music not attained the popularity it so clearly deserves? Horowitz was nonplussed by the fact Medtner’s music didn’t have wider currency, for example. “Yes, Horowitz used to play Medtner enthusiastically for his friends, and earlier in his career programmed some of the sonatas and shorter pieces. There is a single recording of a Fairy Tale as played by Horowitz, and it’s a gem of a performance, he obviously adored this music. But I think Horowitz sensed that Medtner’s music needed several hearings for audiences to fully appreciate its intricacies, and over the years performed his music less and less in concert. It is definitely music that requires effort on the part of the listener, and repeated exposure to any of his scores is a must. It does not sell itself as readily as, say, Rachmaninoff.

“There are other reasons for Medtner being less known than he deserves. Partly due to the circumstances of his life: his personality, the Revolution, bad timing, and just plain bad luck. Long before Rachmaninoff had ever played outside Russia, his Prelude in C♯ Minor had been published and distributed throughout the world, from as early as 1893, which greatly popularized his name. Medtner never had such a “hit” that paved his way, and at any rate was disinterested in the commercial aspects of a musician’s career. At the time of the Revolution, Rachmaninoff was already in the West and stayed there for the remainder of his life, while Medtner was unable to obtain the necessary visas and couldn’t leave until 1921. By the time he did, Europe had its Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Strauss, Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg…the postwar musical scene favored the new, the modern, and Medtner, with his dogged obedience to traditional tonality, harmony, melody, form, was like a throwback to a lost culture and considered hopelessly old-fashioned. He refused to bow to fashion, to write in a “popular” style. His publishers were mainly German, so of course the two wars interfered with the availability of his scores, and the fact that there are no Medtner symphonies, tone poems, ballets, or operas probably weighed against him as well. As a pianist he was marvelous but lacked the charisma of a Rachmaninoff or a Rubenstein, did not fancy himself an audience pleaser and insisted on performing largely his own music in public (with some exceptions, like Beethoven), whereas Rachmaninoff and the other great performers of the day had vast repertoires and considerably more success with audiences. By the time he shifted to London in the ’30s, and was beginning to enjoy some measure of success, the war broke out and his health began to weaken. The Maharaja’s patronage revived his career somewhat, but by then it was too late. It is a sad story, but at least now, with recordings, excellent biographies in several languages and, most importantly, his scores readily available, Medtner’s day has finally come.”

In terms of achievements, the Medtner violin and piano works are in themselves impressive. “Indeed, both the Second and Third Sonatas are written on a vast scale, each over 40 minutes long and extremely concentrated in form and content. They also have strong autobiographical elements. Written while in exile, the Second is sometimes known as Medtner’s ‘Spring Sonata,’ and its inspiration seems to have been triggered by homesickness, particularly for the memories of springtime in Russia. There is a quotation from Tyutchev’s poem Spring Waters printed under the Finale’s main theme in the printed score. Variations comprise the second movement, the haunting theme being in the Aoelian mode of a dumka or lament. The variations become increasingly more folkloric, with both instruments imitating a balalaika in the final measures. Medtner saved the premiere of this work, along with the Canzonas and Dances, for his only post-Revolution visit to Russia, or rather what was by now the USSR, in 1927. In the audience for their first performance was Sergei Prokofiev, to be sure no great admirer of Medtner, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: He pinched a passage from one of the Canzona s for use in his own Eighth Piano Sonata!

“Medtner’s Third Sonata is again another Russia-inspired work, and a reaction to much sadness in his life at the time. By 1935 he had settled, seemingly for good, in England, and was reluctantly accepting his status of permanent exile (he had offended Soviet officials during his 1927 tour, criticized the regime and its oppressive treatment of artists, and as a result his music was banned in the USSR). Perhaps to further solidify his spiritual connection to Russia, he decided to convert to the Orthodox faith (he had been raised a Lutheran). But what affected him most was the death of his elder brother, Emil. The two had been extremely close despite sharing a most unusual relationship: Medtner’s wife, Anna, had previously been married to Emil. Medtner had always felt a certain guilt over his brother’s failed marriage, and his last and grandest work for violin and piano, the Epica , bears the dedication ‘to the memory of my brother Emil,’ intended as both an homage and an act of atonement. The fact that it is in the form of a violin and piano sonata is also significant, as Anna was a professional violinist. The work is a journey, a ‘Winterreise’ if you will, that begins bleakly with a chordal motto that recurs throughout the sonata. Some of the material in the first movement seems folk inspired, that’s certainly the case in the second movement and the modal third. The Finale is filled with deliberate allusions to Russian folk dances and Orthodox liturgical chants, but the pessimism has disappeared and the closing moments are life-affirming, almost victorious. It is a powerful, deeply moving work that, despite its many difficulties, deserves to be in the repertoire beside the very greatest of violin and piano sonatas, right up there with the Kreutzer , or the Franck.”

Stewart’s recordings of Medtner’s complete piano sonatas have been launched on the Grand Piano label, a particularly enterprising company. Both of Medtner’s principal teachers—Arensky (harmony) and Taneyev (counterpoint)—are similarly under-represented these days. Any plans for championing these? Inclusion in recital programs? “Arensky, Taneyev, Goedicke (who coincidently was Medtner’s maternal uncle), Gretchaninov, Tcherepnin, Cui, and so many other Russians from the late 19th-early 20th centuries have yet to receive much attention from recording labels and concert programs. They are, at best, footnotes in biographies of their better-known contemporaries...or given honorable mention in Danny Kaye’s famous song! Arensky is at least known through his First Piano Trio and the two-piano Suites, but he also wrote a sizable amount of quite attractive music for solo piano. If time permits—and it is largely a matter of time!—I most certainly would like to tackle these neglected composers.”

Personally, I loved the Medtner Sonatina (G Minor), especially the Tchaikovskian second movement. “Yes, this was a delightful discovery! It was only published in 1981, a full half-century after Medtner’s death. He was between 16 and 18 years old when it was written, but it already shows a composer who understood the inner workings of composition, who knew how to devise an entire movement from the smallest amount of motivic material, and how to work that material. Despite the obvious borrowings from Tchaikovsky, it sounds a lot like the mature Medtner. He had a unique voice from the very beginning; there is no sense of ‘early,’ ‘middle,’ or ‘late’ periods as with many other composers, Medtner’s voice essentially remained the same, his compositional approach consistent. Jumping, so to speak, from the early Sonatina and First Sonata to the Reminscenza of 15 years later, which I do on this recording, isn’t jarring at all.”

The Sonata-Reminiscenza has some beautiful cantando lines; I like the way Stewart links it thematically with music we hear elsewhere on the disc. In terms of structure, motivic working, etc., just how tight does Stewart think Medtner’s writing is? On the surface it seems almost improvised yet it is clear there is much going on here. “A great deal, actually. The more you study a score like the Reminiscenza , the more you realize how concise and, as you say, how tight the writing is. As I mentioned, Medtner constructs all his works, from the shortest Fairy Tale or song to the piano concertos, from very little motivic material, developed and expanded upon in the most ingenious ways. Everyone who plays Medtner discovers, months after learning it, that the second theme is really the first theme upside-down, or that some seemingly inconsequential accompaniment figure in the exposition is the basis of an apparently new tune in the development. The logic and economy of his craft, the organic whole of each composition, is truly extraordinary. Everything has a purpose, there is never a wasted note. The touching lyricism of the Reminscenza is what communicates initially, of course, but listen to it a few times, or study the score, and the discipline of his writing reveals itself.”

I point to Stewart’s great textural awareness, both of voicing and also in the sense that bass statements don’t get smudged or lost. Does this come as a result of deep immersion with the score? “There is no choice in music so intricately crafted, a pianist must be 100 percent aware of each and every strand of melody, counterpoint, bass line, and how everything fits into a Medtnerian texture. It goes with the territory! Same with the chamber music and songs. Nothing is insignificant in these scores, nothing can be overlooked. With Medtner, one must have the same awareness as with Bach. BUT I would say one of the great dangers with Medtner is the temptation to “over-reveal” the discoveries one makes, to overload the texture...one really needs to make conscious choices of what to emphasize or dominate, there are so many elements worthy of being heard! Keeping everything in relief, in perspective, within the arch, is the only way. Otherwise it can be an exhausting experience for the listener, who doesn’t quite know which line to follow.”

Stewart took to the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto for the Palexa release. Is that in keeping with a wish to illuminate the worthy (it is after all the least well served of Rachmaninoff’s four concertos)? Or are there links to Medtner? I also wondered why this release mixes a concerto with a sonata filler? “I would hardly call a sonata that lasts 35 minutes a ‘filler’…in fact, it takes longer to play than the concerto, and is just as eventful! Both works complement each other, and are historically linked in their dedications: Medtner’s sonata to Rachmaninoff, the latter’s concerto to Medtner. The “Night Wind” Sonata was premiered in 1912 and Rachmaninoff, who was in the audience, was completely bowled over by it. He seems, however, not to have played it himself, at least in public, preferring the briefer, more audience-friendly Sonata-Skazka , its published companion. Years later, in the summer of 1925, the two exiles found themselves living side-by-side in France. Medtner was hard at work on his Second Concerto, Rachmaninoff on his Fourth, and they would play passages to each other for comment. After much discussion, Rachmaninoff cut and rewrote several passages, aiming for a more concise and less ‘padded’ result (one is tempted to say more ‘Medtnerian’). Both works were completed within months of each other, in 1926, and it was only natural that upon publication, Rachmaninoff dedicate the Fourth to his friend, and as with the earlier sonata, Medtner reciprocated by dedicating his Second Concerto to Rachmaninoff. Even after publication, Rachmaninoff had doubts about the length of the Fourth and excised yet another few dozen bars for the Revised Edition. In preparing his 1941 recording with Ormandy he obviously had further thoughts about certain details and made subtle adjustments here and there. My performance uses his final Revised Edition along with the touch-ups we hear in his recording. One finds a leaner, more ascetic and considerably more distilled Rachmaninoff in the Fourth, and perhaps that is why it never achieved great popularity. It’s just not the Rachmaninoff audiences are expecting, which is not to say it doesn’t contain moments of lushness.”

And how did Stewart find working with the Moscow orchestra? The tremendous Russian brass (vibrato!), for example. “It was thrilling just being in the Bolshoi Zal of the Moscow Conservatory, where so much of musical importance has occurred and so many legends are associated. Humbling, to say the least, to see the famous marble plaque listing the distinguished graduates, a Who’s Who of Russian musical history for over a century. The rehearsals were very animated affairs, with a great deal of interaction among the players and conductor; one had the feeling that this was not a traditional orchestra led by a conductor, but one where everyone had equal say as to tempos and phrasing. A carry-over from Soviet days, perhaps. We were also allotted much more than the usual rehearsal time one gets in, say, the U.S.A., so there was more than enough time to sculpt what I think is a convincing interpretation. I was very happy with what we achieved. Yes, those Russian brass ARE wonderful, and I was also quite taken with the cello section, led by a formidable lady named Olga!”

I ask about this particular sonata (No. 7, the so-called “Night Wind”)? Formally, it strikes me as fascinating (the idea of the Beethovenian expansion of the coda into almost a movement of its own, for example, although in Medtner’s hands it becomes a Coda-Fantasy). “A great masterpiece, no wonder it was so applauded by its dedicatee, Rachmaninoff. Sorabji, surprisingly a great admirer of Medtner, referred to it, in 1955, as ‘the greatest piano sonata of modern times,’ and the more one gets to know it, the more one is hard-pressed to dispute this sweeping statement. It certainly packs a wallop in performance. The subtitle derives from a poem by Tchutchev which prefaces the score, a disturbing description of chaos and despair. As with the ‘Epica,’ a motto is first stated, a solemn triplet-figure under which, in the manuscript, is underscored the Cyrillic equivalent of ‘Slushaytye!’ (Listen), like a grim warning. The sonata proper—introduction, the usual theme groups, development and recapitulation, and a restatement of the introduction—is dramatic, dark, turbulent. The Coda-Fantasy you mention is where Medtner’s imagination runs wild; based almost entirely on the first five bars of the introduction, this is where his genius for motivic development, for organizing and exhausting all possibilities of his material, is so astonishingly evident. But far from being dry, academic cleverness, it magnificently evokes Tyutchev’s nightmarish images.

“I love performing this sonata, and listening to what audiences have to say afterwards. With a work of this complexity, where you need a listener’s full attention, I almost always begin by verbally describing what the audience is about to hear, and reciting the poem. Then…fasten your seatbelts!”

Finally I ask about future recording plans, and indeed concert plans, and how these fit in with the work on Medtner. “The Third Piano Concerto bears a dedication to His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore—one of my dreams is to play its Asian premiere in the Maharaja’s palace in Mysore, and to record it there. There are also the songs, over 100, in Russian and German, magnificent settings that really should be better known. If I can find a singer or singers capable of investing a great deal of time and energy into such a formidable project, that would be tops on my ‘dream list’ of recording projects. Eventually, when the piano sonata project is completed, my aim is to perform the entire cycle of 14 sonatas everywhere I can, split over two or three evenings, and possibly including another unfamiliar treasure, the Sonata-Vocalise… if a lyric soprano comes along who is up to it, I shall be fortunate indeed!”

MEDTNER Sonatina in g. Piano Sonatas: No. 1 in f, Op. 5. Sonata-Reminiscenza in a, Op. 38/1 Paul Stewart (pn) GRAND PIANO 617 (58:22)

RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 4 in g, Op. 40. 1 Moment musical in b, Op. 16/3. 2 MEDTNER Piano Sonata No. 7 in e, Op. 25/2, “Night Wind” 2 Paul Stewart (pn) 1 ; Igor Golovchin, cond 1 ; Moscow RSO PALEXA 0506 (68:00) Live: 1 Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory 6/8/1996, 2 Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, Montréal 12/14/1997

Paul Stewart’s enthusiasm for the music he plays, and particularly for Medtner, is infectious, as the above interview shows. Both these discs also act as proof positive of Stewart’s intelligence and devotion, and the Rachmaninoff concerto is a powerful complement.

First, though, the first volume of the piano sonata series on Grand Piano. The G-Minor Sonatina of 1898 (possibly earlier) and unpublished until 1981 is simply lovely. The second movement, a Scherzo, includes a near-quote from Tchaikovsky (“Pas de deux” from Swan Lake ) and plays most attractively with rhythm. Stewart’s touch is perfectly light, in keeping with the balletic feel. In contrast, the Sonata, op. 5, is Medtner’s first large-scale work and certainly the dark, melancholy clouds over the first movement are very impressive. Here Stewart’s textural awareness comes in. He never blurs. The Intermezzo second movement is somber for its title, while the Largo divoto third movement, influenced by music of the Russian Orthodox Church, is massively expansive. It includes some Rachmaninoff-like chromatic slitherings, but Medtner explores regions Rachmaninoff rarely got close to. The Finale is massively exciting. Stewart used the rare first edition for this performance.

Finally, the Sonata-Reminiscenza , part of the op. 38 cycle of Forgotten Melodies, blessed with a gorgeously delicate opening, its rhythms very subtly judged. Stewart perfectly captures the prevailing mood of sadness. One is aware of the carefully controlled motivic and structural subtleties in this performance, yet virtuosity is fully honored, also. Perhaps just a touch more immediacy to the recorded piano sound would have been icing on the cake. Yet the very, very poignant ending resonates long in the memory. Recommended.

The concerto disc begins with a Rachmaninoff Fourth that is scuppered by its recording quality. The orchestra is distanced; the piano sound verges on the tinny. One can, however, revel in that wonderful Russian sound of the orchestra (vibrato horn, slightly acidic yet somehow delicious woodwind). The cholesterol-rich climax of the second movement may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is much poignant playing here. The finale is the real triumph. No “Tom and Jerry” runaway chase soundtrack here, just excitement through and through. The Moment musical functions as a lovely, dark encore (although it is actually taken from the same concert as the other work on the disc). It is the Medtner sonata that makes this purchase worthwhile, though. The single movement structure comes in at some 33 minutes. Dedicated to Rachmaninoff and prefaced by an untitled Tyutchev poem describing howling night winds (hence the work’s subtitle), this is a highly evocative masterpiece that, despite its romantic imagery, is tightly structured (slow introduction, full sonata form plus Coda-Fantasy). Motivically, too, the writing is impeccably conceived, so much so that the work deserves, and rewards, multiple hearings. Stewart’s playing is most persuasive, revealing deep immersion in the score. The recording, again, is on the thin side but Stewart’s virtuosity carries all before it. There is no hint of technical strain here; the mix of intellect, emotion and technique seems well-nigh perfect.

Both discs offer fascinating, rewarding listening; both discs also offer an ideal entry point into Medtner. Colin Clarke


Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )
 
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