How do you go about preparing huge virtuosic concertos like these?
It’s not easy – it’s true there are a lot of notes! And I had never performed these concertos with an orchestra in concert before the recording. But I have a routine to prepare difficult concertos, which includes playing with a recording so I know the orchestra part and how the piano part fits in. If I record something as obscure as these concertos there aren’t many recordings available. There’s only one recording I know of the original version of Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto that’s remotely similar to what I’ve done, and that’s by the pianist Alexander Ghindin with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting.
Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto is less familiar than his Second and Third Concertos – what should listeners expect?
Well, there are some tunes – in the first movement for sure – and they are quite lovely. You don’t have the familiarity that you have with the Second and Third Concertos but you have other elements. It’s a very Romantic concerto, but also feels quite modern with all the complex rhythms – many of which Rachmaninov wrote to please his friend Medtner, who was quite obsessed with them.
And you’re performing the original version…
I prefer Rachmaninov’s originals; some of the revisions were not so successful. One can argue, but in my opinion the first version of the Fourth Concerto is still better. Somehow when I started learning it, his musical ideas were much clearer in the original version as I could feel how he envisaged it before he tried to make it more audience friendly. I don’t think it’s a disadvantage that there’s no big memorable tune in the third movement in the original, to me it flows better. It’s just a personal preference.
Can you tell us about the friendship between Rachmaninov and Medtner?
Rachmaninov thought extremely highly of Medtner – he thought he was the greatest composer who lived at the time. I’ve heard musicians say Medtner was quite envious of Rachmaninov, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Their friendship was quite special and lasted a lifetime. They always supported each other – during Rachmaninov’s difficult moments and breakdowns Medtner was sympathetic, and Rachmaninov always encouraged Medtner. But the best testament of their friendship is having these two concertos [each dedicated to the other]. It’s a shame there’s no record of either performing the other’s.
But Medtner isn’t a concert-hall regular today, like Rachmaninov…
All three Medtner concertos are very hard, and need a lot of rehearsal time. The Romanticism of Rachmaninov and the mysticism of Scriabin caught on, but no one could really place Medtner. He was just a great musician, composer and pianist. But in terms of popularity that doesn’t seem to be good enough as people wanted to find a catchy element and he doesn’t have that. He was just focused on composing good music.
What are the highlights of each of these pieces for you?
Well the crazy rhythms in the last movement of Rachmaninov Four are quite something – all those syncopations. And the chamber music dialogue in the middle of the last movement of the Medtner is quite unusual. In the Medtner you have the dark elements of Rachmaninov, and he quotes from some of Rachmaninov’s songs in the last movement. It’s probably the most accessible concerto out of all three Medtner concerts – there’s a beautiful, memorable meldy in the second movement. People complain Medtner has nice melodies but they are hard to remember. That’s not the case here!
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Audio clip: Medtner: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor – Romanza
Image: Mark Harrison