Forgotten Sonatas

August 9, 2022

The Sonata-Skazka in C minor, Op. 25, No. 1 (1911) is one of my favorites of the Medtner sonatas for a plethora of reasons. First off, if you're new to Medtner sonatas, I recommend you start with Op. 5, the first sonata; I would check out this recording of Lucas Debargue, who actually performed the piece at the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition. The Geoffrey Tozer recording is fine if you don't follow the score, but you'll quickly find him disregarding markings completely and frequently cluttering material you probably need to hear to understand what is going on (the beginning is marked tranquillo, not agitato!). Marc-André Hamelin claims that the smaller pieces are more successful for Medtner, but if you check out even a few recordings of the F minor sonata, you'll find that even celebrity pianists rarely give any real attention to detail in Medtner's music, which is a shame. The result, for the listener, is about 30 minutes of confusion and a long sigh the next time they see the name Nikolai Medtner.

The first movement can be best described as dreamy. It seems to wander around (the first theme is marked as carezzando, or caressingly) with a generally somber and restless character. The first theme actually reminds me a lot of the beginning of Les Larmes (Tears) from Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 1, Op. 5, whether because of the quiet, descending figures, or the ostinato rhythm that pervades that theme. Eventually we reach a beautiful, second theme in G minor, also dreamy, and marked quasi V-cello. For me, what makes this movement so great is the way that it develops. The searching quality eventually dissipates before we reach a confident coda in C Major. In this movement, both the lyricism of the second movement and the march of the third movement are foreshadowed.

The Sonata-Skazka was apparently liked enough by Rachmaninoff, one of Medtner's dearest friends, that he performed it in his recitals. Interestingly, if you take the first five notes of the opening melody of the second movement, one can find Rachmaninoff's famous 18th variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written 23 years later! For me, this is one of Medtner's most tuneful moments. Actually, if you don't think Medtner is great at writing ear worms, check out one of his famous tunes from Canzona Matinata, Op. 39, No. 4.

I'll admit that I didn't quite understand the third movement at all at first; I blame this on the many poor recordings. What I always loved about Milne's playing of these sonatas is his focus on clarity. While he doesn't always convey the passion one might get from Tozer, I'd argue that what's important is presenting the music with complete respect to Medtner's craftsmanship. I find that with Medtner's music, there are instances (like in this piece) where leaving it alone does more justice than not (while being aware of what should be at the forefront). In this fiery movement, a march in 5/2, we get a typical Medtner trick: he intertwines themes we heard from previous movements in order to create a powerful conclusion; it's really cool! At the end, a large, descending scale eventually leads us to disappearing into thin air. Medtner loves ending pieces after you think the piece concluded at a sf, full chord. For some reason, the last two notes make me think of a wolf burping after viciously devouring its meal.

I hope reading this made you more excited about this sonata. I think there's a lot that Medtner has to offer in his sonatas, and a real reason why they're neglected is because we don't have many great recordings of them, and we pianists are opting to play another Rachmaninoff's 2nd Sonata (one of my favorite sonatas, by the way!).

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