Few today would agree with Rachmaninoff’s glowing assessment of his old friend Nikolai Medtner as “the greatest living composer.” While nearly as skilled as Rachmaninoff in manipulating the basic musical materials—a meticulous craftsmanship that earned him the admiration of many of his contemporaries, including the young Sergei Prokofiev, who reserved “a corner for him—perhaps not a very big one—in the pantheon of Russian music”—Medtner’s tragic limitation lay in the basic nature of his musical materials. For if Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is “ Parsifal without the jokes,” then Medtner is “Rachmaninoff without the tunes.” Search as you will through the contents of this lovingly produced anthology of his piano sonatas, you won’t find a single unforgettable theme. And as with all music that doesn’t have a high melodic profile, Medtner’s simply refuses to stick in the memory, like a meal made up of dishes with the same admirably subtle but woefully indistinguishable flavors.
Which is not to say that Rachmaninoff and the others were wrong in praising Medtner’s highly developed abilities, so obvious in the unerring sweep of the single-movement Sonata reminiscenza, composed in 1920, some four years before the composer fled the infant Soviet Union. The lengthy development of the brooding opening theme—one of many “reminiscences” of pre-Soviet Russia—combined with an agitated central section, make for a wonderfully satisfying structural experience. Had either of the principal themes come up to the level of even second-rung Rachmaninoff, it might well have been a masterpiece.
Composed in France in the early 1930s and dedicated to the Scottish pianist A. M. Henderson, the Sonata romantica has always been one of the key works in the Medtner canon, for reasons that become obvious at once. Cast in four movements which are played without pause, the piece is loaded with dramatic incident, especially in the scherzo and finale. In the opening “romanza” and wistful “meditazione,” it’s the lack of melodic inspiration that again allows the listener’s mind to wander; in the faster music, so many intriguing things are happening so quickly that you don’t notice (or don’t mind). Its stormy companion piece, the Sonata minacciosa (“threatening”) is another imposing one-movement structure that includes, among its many compelling features, a superbly worked-out fugue.
If, for the last word in interpretive savvy and technical élan, the classic Hyperion survey from Marc-André Hamelin remains in a category of its own, then these alert and stylish performances from the young Italian pianist Alessandro Taverna are admirable in every way. He brings a Hamelin-like legerdemain to the breathless scherzo of the Sonata romantica, and sorts out the odd syncopations of the work’s final movement with a comparable ease. Although the recorded sound could have been a touch more resonant—if only to allow the big climaxes more space to bloom—it reveals much about this gifted young player’s ability to clarify the densest textures, to say nothing of his highly developed technique. In short, this is precisely the sort of adept, passionately committed advocacy Medtner requires, and his fans can only hope for more from the same source. Jim Svejda