October 18, 2012

(++++) POWERFUL PIANISM


Nicolai Medtner: Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 1—Sonatina in G minor; Sonata No. 1; Sonata-Reminiscenza (Sonata No. 10). Paul Stewart, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Medtner: Fairy Tales (Skazki), Op. 34; Prokofiev: Sonata No. 4. Georgy Tchaidze, piano. Honens. $14.99.

Schumann: Piano Quintet; Piano Quartet; Märchenerzählungen. Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Nicolò Eugelmi, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello); Xiayin Wang, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

      The Grand Piano label is making its way through the pianistic output of a variety of composers, and it has struck gold with its decision to release the sonatas of Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951).  Medtner, a countryman, friend and near-contemporary of Rachmaninoff, wrote no fewer than 14 piano sonatas and, even more interestingly, a total of 38 pieces he called Skazki, a word that translates as “tales” but is usually rendered in English as “Fairy Tales.”  Hopefully Paul Stewart, who plays Medtner’s works with excellence, understated virtuosity and clear understanding, will go through the Skazki as well as the sonatas, because it is in the “tales” that Medtner’s creativity really shines – they are as important to his oeuvre as the sonatas.  This is not to minimize the significance of the sonatas themselves, however.  The early Sonatina in G minor (1898) proves to be melodic, very well structured and assembled at a length (seven-and-a-half minutes) that seems to fit the material perfectly; it is also, especially in its second movement, very Tchaikovskian.  The Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Medtner’s first large-scale work, written between 1895 and 1903, is more than four times as long and much more intense, including a sense of spiritual seeking as well as very considerable amounts of drama.  It contains reflections of Schumann and Liszt, but also shows clearly that Medtner had already developed his own distinctive style.  And the Sonata-Reminiscenza, in A minor and composed from 1919 to 1920, is simply beautiful: poetic, nostalgic and lyrical, filled with melancholy and regret, and featuring much of the originality found in the Skazki.

      To hear just how much, listeners can turn to an excellent CD featuring Georgy Tchaidze, on which some of Medtner’s Skazki appear in top-notch performances.  There are four of them here, the composer’s Op. 34, dating to 1916-1917, and all are impressive miniature tone paintings with intriguing titles: “The Magic Violin,” “What We Once Called Ours Is Gone Forever,” “Wood Spirit (but a kind, plaintive one),” and “The Poor Knight” – the last inspired by Pushkin.  Clever pianism, interesting harmonies, rhythmic and harmonic subtlety, and considerable virtuosity distinguish these works, which along with the sonatas establish Medtner as a very considerable composer and pianist.  Tchaidze also delivers an excellent reading of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, beautifully balancing the lighter pieces such as “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” against the serious “Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” and the highly dramatic concluding “The Great Gate of Kiev.”  Tchaidze, a Russian native and winner of Canada’s  2009 Honens International Piano Competition, is clearly thoroughly at home in music of his native land, and interestingly selects one of Prokofiev’s least-known piano sonatas to complete this CD.  A personal and rather gloomy work with a passage of surprising delicacy in the middle of the second of its three movements, the sonata does not sound like what could be called “typical” Prokofiev, but Tchaidze clearly has considerable affection for it and plumbs its depths with sensitivity and skill.

      Decades before Medtner’s Skazki – indeed, long before the later composer’s birth – Schumann also created fairy-tale pieces to be played by piano, although not by piano alone.  Märchenerzählungen, a late piece (1853), is a dark-hued but energetic work. It exists in two versions, one including viola and clarinet and the other using viola and violin. It is the latter version that is performed by Xiayin Wang and members of the Fine Arts Quartet in a reading of considerable warmth that emphasizes the music’s generally upbeat character – which is something of a surprise, given the dour nature of Schumann’s life at the time of composition (he was to attempt suicide the following year).  More than a decade earlier, in September 1842, Schumann composed his Piano Quintet, which also gets a bracing and pleasant performance here.  This was a groundbreaking work that paved the way for the quintets of Brahms, Dvořák and Franck; the performers here are careful to bring out its many contrasts between lyricism and forcefulness, with the piano frequently taking the lead (Schumann dedicated the work to his wife, Clara, who gave the première performance) but functioning effectively as part of the ensemble at other times.  Only a month after writing the quintet, Schumann produced his Piano Quartet, and again the performance here is very well-balanced and sensitive to the nuances of a work whose slow movement, Andante cantabile, is especially affecting, opening with a gorgeous cello theme.  Indeed, this work was written for a nobleman who was a skilled amateur cellist – but here too the piano is prominent, and Clara once again played that instrument at the work’s première.  The sensitive performances on this Naxos CD are all well-proportioned and a pleasure to hear.

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