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Briefly Noted: Piano Concertos by Medtner, Scriabin

available at Amazon
Medtner, Piano Concerto No. 3 / Scriabin, Piano Concerto, Y. Sudbin, Bergen Philharmonic, A. Litton

(released on February 10, 2015)
BIS-2088 | 62'42"
One hears a lot of Russian piano concertos in the concert hall these days, but they are all by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev. With this disc, Russian-born pianist Yevgeny Sudbin completes his traversal of the three piano concertos of Nikolai Medtner, which are not so often recorded or even heard, pairing that composer's third concerto with the early piano concerto of Alexander Scriabin. Sudbin recreates his success in the solo piano works of the latter composer, heard on one of his earliest recordings for the BIS label, in Scriabin's concerto, although it dates from long before the composer's turn toward more dissonant harmony.

Twenty-some recordings of the Scriabin concerto are available, with the best one combining Vladimir Ashkenazy as soloist and the late Lorin Maazel conducting the London Philharmonic, recorded on the London label in the 1970s. Sudbin moves a little faster in the concerto's outer movements, which cranks up the level of excitement, and his technique is still impeccable. He takes the slow movement at about the same pace as Ashkenazy, and he takes a delicate, dreamy approach, as he does with the more Romantic and swooning parts of the extensive finale, where some melodic turns are echoed by Rachmaninoff in his later concertos. Rachmaninoff essentially kept to the same style all his life, while Scriabin kept changing.

Although Medtner did not compose his third piano concerto until the 1940s, it is perhaps even more retrogressive than Rachmaninoff in terms of harmony. Medtner lays down more technical challenges here than Scriabin's more youthful work, all dispatched with ease by Sudbin. The work is a bit sphinx-like formally, with two gigantic outer movements, each containing many different thematic areas and characteristics, joined by a short, transitional second movement requiring under two minutes to play. The true slow movement is the "Andante con moto tranquillo" section of the third movement that gives the concerto its nickname ("Ballade"), reflecting what Medtner once said was the program of the work, derived from a poem by Mikhail Lermontov about the water nymph Rusalka and the knight awakened by her seductive song.

Sudbin writes, in a personal booklet essay, of his initial "reservations" about recording both of these works, because it would be "very hard to find an orchestra and conductor with the same determination to make the pieces work," not to mention the rehearsal time. He found excellent partners in the Bergen Philharmonic and their music director, Andrew Litton, who match him in volubility and edge, as well as elegant restraint where needed. Litton is familiar to Washington audiences as a frequent guest conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra, since his time as an assistant conductor of that ensemble in the 1980s, most recently at Wolf Trap last summer. We will hopefully hear more of him during the regular visits of the New York City Ballet to the Kennedy Center, in his capacity as the company's new music director.

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