Nikolai Medtner: Piano sonata in f minor, op. 5

performed by Geoffrey Tozer

In case you haven’t ever heard of Nikolai Medtner, I’d like to make the case that this, one of his earliest compositions, is undeniably one of the greatest things ever composed in the history of history.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner was born on January 5, 1880 (December 24, 1879 on the Julian Calendar, Christmas Eve), the youngest of five children, and started taking piano lessons from an early age, initially with his mother. He was a contemporary of two other people you may have heard of, one of whom you definitely have since he was featured last week, Alexander Scriabin. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory, graduating in 1900, with apparent intentions (or expectations of others) to become a performer rather than composer, “partly inspired by the intellectual challenge of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s late piano sonatas and string quartets,” says Wikipedia.

Elsewhere on the interwebs last week, I referred to him as “kind of the Russian Chopin,” because everything he wrote was for or at least included piano. That being said, he branched out a little more than Chopin did, having three violin sonatas, a piano quintet, works for two pianos, and more than 100 songs for voice to his name, in addition to his 14 piano sonatas, three piano concertos and more.

Interestingly, when his older brother Emil went off to war, the younger Nikolai fell in love with Anna Bratenskaya, Emil’s wife and a famous violinist. Because Emil was in Germany, and the two had apparently fallen in love, big bro gave Nikolai permission to marry his then wife, and they married in 1918. Also interesting to note about Medtner’s career is that he did not leave Russia as early as others, notably Rachmaninoff, did, but Rachmaninoff did help Medtner arrange some concert tours and stuff in the West, which it seems he never took to very well, and settled in England, mostly teaching and composing until his death in 1951 at the age of 69.

Today’s work is the composer’s first piano sonata, written when he was in his early twenties, and it is stupendous. Wikipedia states that it “[suggests] the style of Scriabin or Rachmaninoff,” but I wouldn’t be so quick to assert that, at least not without qualification. The work, like just about anything I guess, at first glance, may seem unassuming, but with either an attentive ear or a glance at the score, the work is clearly revealed to be an absolute masterpiece.

The reason I would say the association to Scriabin or Rachmaninoff needs qualification is because it puts the too much context to the work, if that makes sense. Scriabin’s work, as we have seen, is very much its own thing with its own voice, and Rachmaninoff, as well, has certain characteristics that make his music special. I’d say the problem with associating Medtner’s sonata too closely with them is that you’ll view this work through a certain Russian-colored filter that can prevent you from seeing all the color in the work, and I think there’s plenty of that kind of detail to be enjoyed here.

It’s a four-movement work, coming in at around a half hour or so. The first movement sounds like if Bach had spent a few decades in Romantic-era Russia, a biting Slavic wind in his face, with the openness and singing church-bell sonority of so much Russian music. It rings out with a distinct Russian flavor, but also a Germanic shade, and the sonata-form first movement is masterfully crafted as gestures take on greater importance, overlap each other like rows of bricks making an ever-growing wall, increasing intricacy, but never over-dense complexity. I’d given some very inattentive listens to the work, but the moment I put everything down and picked up the score, the work really blew me away. This first movement shows a masterful confidence, an almost surgically precise execution of structure and development, while at the same time being fluid and spontaneous and richly Romantic. It is as if, in this first movement, the young Medtner has assimilated the entire collective history of music in the Western hemisphere, digested it, processed it, and used all of it to communicate, in his own voice, a stunning, compelling, epic work for piano.

This is evident in just the twelve-minute first movement alone, but there’s more to come. The first movement is the longest, but in this four-movement structure, the second is by far the shortest, being called an intermezzo. It’s much lighter than its predecessor, but of no lesser merit or quality, a nice little glass of refreshment among three heavy-hitting movements, and the charms of this smaller-scale are directly evident. While it’s lighter and of a more brisk tempo, it isn’t a triple-meter scherzo or anything. It’s in cut time, and does still have its heavier moments that call back to the first movement.

Third is the largo, an obvious contrast to the intermezzo, but much more in keeping with the first movement. These contrasts make for a vivid, powerful narrative and are able to maintain the compelling momentum of the piece. Again, we have a movement of richly musical, handsome music, writing that’s fiery, but not in the sense of anger as much as a rich passion and lyricism. And unyielding momentum, practically palpable. It makes this large-ish piano work roll by. There’s never a dull moment.

The slow movement leads attacca into the finale, in which I hear a classical-ness, something Beethovenesque, while not at all trying to be something it isn’t; it’s still 20th century, youthful, richly, even unmistakably Russian music, and yes, one can possibly hear that this entire work comes from a contemporary of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, from similar palates but independent styles. There’s a commanding gallop nature to passages of the finale, like our stone-faced Russian heroically-facing-into-the-wind-Bach of the first movement is now on horseback, riding off to do something triumphant. The movement gains greater ornateness but is never too heavy to support itself. At the end of my (yes, handwritten) notes (can you believe it?), I wrote “just wow”.

I feel in this piece, although I may have blown past describing it in much objective detail, is one of the most stunningly vivid, epic, compelling works for solo piano that there is. I hear Bach, I hear Beethoven, I hear Chopin and Liszt, Tchaikovsky, but also none of them and all Medtner. There’s a sense of propulsion in this work, from the very first opening unison gesture in the left and right hands that opens the work, through to the very end, one unbroken line of thought and musical development, a jaw-dropping stop-you-in-your-tracks construction of outstanding musical integrity and beauty that puts it aside the greatest epic piano sonatas ever written, like the Liszt, or whichever is your favorite of the Beethovens.

Wikipedia, in the same above-linked article, says in the ‘Piano sonatas’ section that “Medtner’s craft gained subtlety and complexity in later years, but this work is already evidence of his mastery of musical structure.” I’d sure say so. It may not necessarily indicative of his later development; he went on to write some single-movement sonatas, at least one of which is larger than this work, and other collections and sets of less traditionally-structured work, but it seems the composer stayed relatively conservative throughout his career, at least relative to some of his contemporaries. Regardless, though, this piece is a phenomenal jumping off point for any career, and one of the most remarkable, unforgettable works for piano I have come to enjoy in a very long time.

Medtner’s only getting one mention this month, though, and I had to squeeze him in this week because we’re moving on to another name you’ll be unsurprised to see, culminating with another sprawling, very Russian sonata, so stay tuned for that.

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One thought on “Nikolai Medtner: Piano sonata in f minor, op. 5

  1. I cama across Medtner for the first time when the Russian pianist Lugansky played an “encore” at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg belonging to Medtner’s song cycle “Forgotten melodies”, Op. 38. Beautiful!! I’ll have a look at his piano sonatas.

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