Medtner: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor; Piano Quintet in C

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COMPOSERS: Medtner
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor; Piano Quintet in C
PERFORMER: Alexander Alexeev (piano)New Budapest Quartet, BBC SO/Alexander Lazarev
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 66744 DDD
Hyperion’s massive project to chart the largely unknown waters of obscure piano concertos shows no sign of abating. If anything, it is gaining strength. As my Best CD of 1994 I singled out the 7th disc in the series, principally because of the melodic charm and affecting simplicity of Henselt’s F minor concerto. This latest disc is quite different. On the evidence of his three concertos (Nos 2 and 3 were recorded earlier in the series)

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Nikolai Medtner is a substantial and original composer whose absence from the standard concerto repertoire is unjustified, to say the least. Medtner has been likened to Rachmaninov. The comparison is apt, for they were firm friends – indeed Rachmaninov admired the younger composer for his bold harmonic and rhythmic experiments, and dedicated his Fourth Concerto to him. Medtner, by contrast, envied Rachmaninov’s glorious melodies, which goes a long way to explaining the current gulf in popularity between the two composers.

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The Piano Concerto No. 1 dates from just after the First World War. Comparison with other music of that era is bound to reinforce the criticism that Medtner was a throwback – like many of the composers represented in this series – to the late 19th century. But this should not prevent us from observing that this concerto is endlessly inventive and splendidly original. Not least among its eccentricities is the absence of conventional movements: the whole concerto is instead wrapped up as a massive single-movement sonata form. It makes for a strong sense of unity and inner purpose. The melodies are not quite as catchy as Rachmaninov’s but they have ample character and poise. The orchestral writing is turbulent and energetic: listening to it is like watching waves crashing onto a beach in endless permutations and with effortless power. Christopher Lambton