Rachmaninov & Medtner Piano Concertos (CD)

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Yevgeny Sudbin

In 1926, two friends, Medtner and Rachmaninoff, each put what they thought were the finishing touches to two new piano concertos and dedicated them to each other; so, surprisingly, this is the first time they have been heard together on one recording.

Rachmaninoff slimmed his concerto down fifteen years later but here is the earlier, bigger version, which has only received one previous recording (on the Ondine label). The Medtner Second Concerto was definitively recorded by the composer with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Issay Dobrowen for the Maharajah of Mysore's musical foundation (available on Testament) and there have been a fair number of recordings since then, including some quite brilliant further recordings in the modern era which are of course available in the shops or online. Rachmaninoff recorded the revised version of his Fourth Concerto with Eugene Ormandy but even this was eclipsed by Michelangeli's famous HMV recording, like the Dobrowen recordings with a slightly later Philharmonia Orchestra, to which all listeners should refer for inspiration.

Whilst Medtner, the younger of the two composers by seven years, produced the happiest of his three splendid piano concertos, brimming as it does with wit and joie de vivre, Rachmaninoff, as ever plagued with uncertainty as to the value of his new work, was experimenting in transition with the move from his famously approachable "main period" style to a sharper, macabre and twilit musical style in response to representations made to him not only by Medtner himself, but also by the poetess Marietta Shaginyan, pressure from whom had resulted in the composition of the wayward and symbolist songs in the op.38 series.

So this record recreates the exchange and mutual dedication of these two delicious and important piano concertos and they are cleanly, sensitively and brilliantly played by both soloist and orchestra, for which conductor Grant Llewellyn must take proper credit. Doubtlessly Yevgeni Sudbin and BIS will shortly give us Medtner's greatest concerto, the Third ("Ballade"), perhaps with Issay Dobrowen's own piano concerto in C sharp minor, but that would be something to await in perfect satisfaction whilst listening to the present disc...

This recording is highly recommended to all: the music does not yield up its delights immediately but grows on the listener with each repeated hearing to become highly moving and satisfying (both composers are masters at bittersweet writing, for they were certainly touched by the Geist of the 1920s), so the pieces do become old friends, even if on the very first hearing they might not in fact resemble the most self-importantly celebrated and gushing guests at a rather classy dinner party.