November 8, 2008

Medtner: Piano Concerto no. 2 (1920-27)

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)
Concerto no. 2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 50
composed: 1920-27 (ages 40-47)
first performance: Moscow, March 13, 1927 (Moscow Conservatory Orchestra?/Alexander Medtner)
dedicated to Serge Rachmaninoff

I know it’s not the greatest picture, but I had to use it because this is apparently March 8, 1927 – i.e. the Tuesday prior to the Sunday of the premiere – and was taken at Moscow Conservatory, seemingly on a stage, so this may well be the piano on which the premiere was soon to be performed. That’s of course Medtner at the piano. The other two guys are nobody important.

No. 633. Strange, somehow, that this of all pieces should have turned up so early in the random playlist – it’s an off-the-beaten-path piece that happens to be a particular favorite of mine, and its coincidental inclusion in The Essential Canon of Western Music is a bit of Medtner advocacy on Dubal’s part that very arguably has no place here. If nobody knows a piece, it’s definitionally not in the Essential Canon, quality be damned.

I learned the word “lapidary” from reading a description of Medtner’s work, and that really is a fine word for it. Every detail feels worked – in the good sense of having been cared for and refined, not the bad sense of having been tortured out of all naturalness. The feature of Medtner’s music that grips me most, in fact, is precisely that it is simultaneously very worked and very natural. The achievement of grace through great effort is inspiring; and to be able to hear both the effort and the grace is aesthetically very satisfying. That may come close to a definition of artistic beauty, in fact. At least for me.

It is further inspiring and fascinating to me that Medtner didn’t just subscribe to the principle of artistic grace through toil, but actually articulated and espoused it in a book. Even the titles and texts of his works themselves frequently make explicit reference to his underlying quasi-devotional philosophy, wherein the sacred essence of music – delivered to us from somewhere divine, above and beyond – must be treated with the humblest respect and a tireless, monk-like dedication. Lots of artists have said stuff like “I am just a poor servant of the muse, just a vessel for something greater than me,” but it usually comes off as a weak misdirection from their throbbing egos. Medtner, I think, actually lived by his words, which would explain why he was able to seem arrogantly self-serious about his music despite having no stomach at all for actual self-promotion – a failing that probably accounts for his outsider status in the Canon. Unlike the comparably-gifted Rachmaninoff, who gritted his teeth and played his greatest hits at sold-out concerts all the way into the sunset, Medtner apparently couldn’t accept that quality and sincerity weren’t the only criteria for success, and let his fame and reputation slip away, until in his final years he came to completely depend on the charity of a small circle of admirers in London.

Medtner’s book, The Muse and the Fashion (now wonderfully available online) spells it all out in prose, and made a very powerful impression on me when I first read it. Yes, Mr. Medtner, compared to your serious, devoted, layered craftsmanship, most “modern” music does seem like lazy, self-indulgent permissiveness. His totally stubborn, reactionary aesthetic philosophy made perfect sense to me, to my great surprise. I can get there and feel it the way he felt it, and it takes a while to shake it off. There was a year or two where I didn’t really have any desire to play any music other than Medtner’s; everything else seemed to be, to some degree, shirking responsibilities or missing opportunities.

The spell eventually dissipated. There are many other paths in music, and I can follow them too, gladly and without reservations. But spending that time in Medtner’s mindset expanded my aesthetic outlook rather than contracting it, I believe. Being open to absolutely anything the art world throws at you – the criterion of no criteria – is a relatively easy direction to stretch. Maintaining principles is much harder. Medtner was wrong to believe that what he saw as “muse” was universally true and what he saw as “fashion” was universally false; but he was surely right that it was true for him. The time I spent immersed in Medtner’s music convinced me of the importance of making an equivalent distinction for myself, derived from my nature, nurture, culture, and whatever else.

For every person, some things are meaningful in a way that others aren’t, and one must always strive to know the difference.

This Piano Concerto No. 2 was the first piece of Medtner’s that I actually heard on a recording – I had previously played my own way through the Sonata op. 22 – and I remember that when I first put it on, I intended to make a game of seeing how many listens it would take for me to “get” the piece. Nowadays I could probably parse the first two movements after only a few tries. At the time, I felt almost immediately that, though I liked many of the “sounds,” I was clearly in over my head. After two furrowed-brow listens, I gave up and resorted to getting the score. (The standard online source seems to have gotten a little more stringent about Russian copyright, of late, so at present you can’t download the score pdfs anymore, but who knows what the future holds.)

With the score in hand, it fell into place readily and was dazzling to me. On the blind listens, I had a tough time just making sense of the hard-kicking opening rhythm. What was it, exactly? Seeing it in the score I remember getting very excited: it’s a pop syncopation! And not classy pop, either! It’s a big legit piano concerto based on “The Price is Right”! My ear had been unable to hear the rhythm for what it was because the cultural dissonance was too great. And yet, once known, the “pop” rhythm is still perfectly in keeping with the rest of the piece. Medtner, whose music is seen as deeply conservative, was actually far, far ahead of his time in using heavy syncopations and other rhythmic quirks as an integral part of the musical fabric. In fact I can’t think of any other “serious” composers since who have really followed his lead. Lively irregular rhythms have been fair game for art music since Stravinsky, but lively regular rhythms are so strongly associated with pop musics that nobody seems to be able to shake the connotation, or seems interested in trying. John Adams and company might throw in a little “Price is Right” syncopation every now and then, but that post-minimalist aesthetic very intentionally claims a closer kinship to pop culture than other art music; the sheen that half-reflects “The Price is Right” is part of the program. Not so, obviously, with Medtner. Nobody is using these rhythms the way he did: as pure, abstract musical materials that happen to be blessed with charismatic vitality.

Though: I remember my surprise on realizing that some of the distinctively propulsive “Hollywood adventure” rhythms in a John Williams score (Star Wars or the like) were in fact syncopations borrowed from pop, or at least from pop-ified marching bands/drum corps. They had been put to an entirely unrelated use in drastically different garb, which made them sound like a whole new species. More evidence that pop rhythms are just itching to get out and do other things! Cue my dad saying, “maybe you should try to write the kind of music you’re describing.” Yes, Dad, maybe I should, but not until I’m done with this entry, okay?


The first movement is a big, beautiful, romantic concerto movement exactly the way you want it: showy yet rigorous. The exposition dishes up a healthy helping of thematic material, all of it tasty, and then immediately sets to work doing tricks with it, juggling it all together, before the development even starts. It’s a joyful little quasi-sonata in itself, and the “ta-dah!” that ends the exposition feels like it merits applause, since so much has been accomplished already. If it were in the home key, it might seem like a genuine ending. But then, with some grinding, moaning chords, something truly sticky enters the mix for the first time and a long elaborate development becomes necessary to clean it up. The considerable cadenza that stands in for most of the recapitulation is fantastically well-written – full of flash and boom, but all of it in the service of an intelligent argument; there’s nothing inflated or gratuitous about it. (And yet even so, he apparently felt obligated to offer an optional cut, halving the cadenza, which is a real shame because many of the recordings take it.) Then the movement ends with one of Mr. Medtner’s favorites, a spooky wind that blows away all the little bits and pieces of material.

He wrote many pieces called “fairy tale,” and this concerto shares their sensibility of dignified fantasy. The spirit of the thing is like the lavish, inherently serious fantasy illustrations of the “golden age” – Parrish and Rackham and whoever (Bilibin in Russia might be more relevant here). But Medtner’s fairy tales are even more refined than the illustrators’, to the point where they have absolutely nothing to do with childhood: the music carries only the inner essence of fantasy, absolutely freed from any connotation of immaturity. That wry wind that blows away the themes at the end of the first movement is a wind from a fairy tale, but it’s no joke. It’s not nostalgia either. It is genuinely itself and must be reckoned with, as formidable as any shout of fate out of Beethoven.

Second movement is based on a very pretty slow melody that schowcases another Medtner specialty – his ability to build a long, compelling “sentence-y” theme out of ruminative development of a short “motive-y” theme. The music mulls over the opening phrases and in the process finds that it has spun out something much longer and more sweeping. This multilayered activity is the sort of thing that is very moving and beautiful when you are paying attention to it and yet can totally disappear when you aren’t. Medtner’s music tends to sound well-built, conventional, and unremarkable when one surfs over the details, because the scale on which he is lapidating is fine – and this is, I grant, a sort of weakness, but an inevitable one given his technique, and well worth the tradeoff… at least as long as an attentive audience can be ensured! Which, I guess, didn’t always work out for him. If you aren’t genuinely aware simultaneously of each phrase as it happens, of the established motives, of the theme as a whole, and of the harmony shifting under them, you will just hear some moderately pretty music, because the real beauty is in how elegantly these elements are held in tension and symmetry with one another. Such music is a bit like a magic square – it’s easy to see a huge magic square and shrug because, sure, it all seems to work out. Experiencing wonder requires one to feel the individual elements and become aware of the immense control necessary to hold them all in perfect relation.

This bizarre metaphor applies better to a fugue, actually. But it’s true of any art that is based on, as Stephen Dedalus windily says, the “formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which it is a part.” Such relations are easy to shrug at once they exist, and some superficial relations are genuinely easy to rig up in a jiffy, but the best kind are not at all. Such relationships are, in a sense, themselves the work of art. If you can think that way, and can take the time to get to know something that way, you will like this piece. I think you will actually like his Concerto No. 1 better, but it’s not in this Canon.

K.S. “Leon” Sorabji, whose criticism is so much better than his music, said something – hm, can’t find the quote online – about Medtner’s music (I think specifically this concerto) feeling wonderful under the pianist’s hands, “like sinking one’s fingers into the pile of a deep oriental rug” or something to that effect. Once again I have used quotation marks completely undeservedly. Anyway, it’s true. Even the fingerings are lapidary; the mechanics of performance are beautifully, gratefully choreographed. It’s possible that my impression of the work as a whole takes this sort of behind-the-scenes refinement too much into account. I usually tend to think that looking at the score and touching the keyboard are just a shortcut to the same appreciation I would eventually arrive at through pure listening – that, if anything, the backstage route tends to blind me to some of the richness of a work by flattening it. But “richness” and “murk” can be dangerously similar; I’m just not sure which is the less sensitive way to approach a piece. Anyway, I’ve seen this piece naked and there’s no unseeing it now. And, I guess I’m saying, it looks great naked.

Third movement is the most formally idiosyncratic; it calls itself “Rondo” but it isn’t, really. Well, sort of. Oh, now, in the act of making myself write this, I think I finally get what the deal with this movement is. Thanks, my website.

The movement, I now see, seems to be conceived as an ambitious hybrid of rondo and sonata forms. It is an attempt to let both forms carry out their characteristic functions simultaneously. The rondo “refrain” is actually made up of two distinct subjects that more or less correspond to sonata themes, and most of the “episodes” consist of cameo appearances by melodies from the first two movements, recast as dances. At the end of the “exposition” there is a spooky-sad interlude, very much in the vein of the “fairy tale” pieces, which serves as an “episode” but also creates the psychological justification for the “development.” A fugato incorporating the refrain material serves as a traditional signal that we are in the development; then the second half of the development is based on material from the first movement and so does double-duty as an “episode.” The next reappearance of the initial theme is thus able to function both as a refrain in the rondo and as the sonata recapitulation. A partial reappearance of the first episode, from early in the movement, creates sonata symmetry even though the material has no clear sonata function in itself. Then a very brief cadenza leads to a manic coda, in which all the material from all three movements is stuffed into a phonebooth and then blown out of a cannon. It looks fantastically clever on the page; in practice, most of the detail disappears and it just sounds like a big “hoorah,” which is also a perfectly fine way to end a piece.

So I just walked myself through it, but up until right now, I have simply enjoyed this final movement as a house party to which the other movements have been invited, and that has been plenty for me. Walking through the rooms and seeing everyone dancing is perfectly enjoyable, in this case, even if you don’t notice the floor plan. I guess now I’ll have to see if having noticed the floor plan changes my appreciation for the piece.

David Dubal’s recommended recording is

Demidenko, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Maksymiuk: Hyperion CDA 66580

and that is mine as well. That is the recording that I heard first and the one I have continued to listen to over the years. It is, notably, one of the only recordings that features the uncut version of the first movement cadenza. The performance is satisfyingly energetic, and the recorded sound is attractive.

The composer’s own performance (Philharmonia Orchestra / Issay Dobrowen, 1947) is quite good despite the loose orchestra, and worth hearing through the crackles for its obvious historical significance. This time around we also listened to

Geoffrey Tozer, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Neeme Järvi, 1991.
Abram Shatskes, USSR Symphony Orchestra / Evgeny Svetlanov, 1959.

They’re all fine.

Somewhere I have a scan of the first edition cover. I used to put those on here. If I find it, I’ll include it at the top. AND REMOVE THIS SENTENCE.

Man, I have so many of these classical canon pieces still to write up.

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