Among the many lesser-known composers whose music Marc-Andre Hamelin has championed over the course of his career is the Russian-born Nikolai Medtner, who lived from 1880 to 1951 and was a contemporary and close friend of Rachmaninoff. Medtner’s output was considerable. It includes three piano concertos, three sonatas for violin and piano, a piano quintet, more than a hundred songs, fourteen piano sonatas, and many smaller works for solo piano.
In his introduction to the YouTube video of another Medtner sonata, the “Sonata Romantica”, Hamelin has this to say about Medtner’s music:
…I knew Medtner’s name way before that, but it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I started to look at the music. Medtner’s music unfortunately is of the kind that rarely makes the best impression at first hearing. It is not particularly melodically generous like, for example, Rachmaninoff tends to be, but I’ve found time and again that if you give Medtner time, and if you give him a second chance and a third chance, if you listen and listen and listen again, he will reveal himself to you, and you will not be able to get rid of him afterwards. He will be always part of you.
I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I would add this: the admonition to give Medtner a second and third chance applies just as well to the music of other composers. Music is a language. We would never dream of trying to make sense of a foreign language when we encounter it for the first time, yet how often do we pass judgment on a new piece of music without first taking the time and trouble to become familiar with it? Countless opportunities to enrich our lives are lost in this way. I’m not saying that we should withhold judgment indefinitely on every new piece of music we hear – not every unfamiliar composer is a Medtner – but I am saying that it is vital not to rush to judgment.
Hamelin is no less enthusiastic about this particular sonata than he is about Medtner’s music in general. In Robert Rimm’s 2002 book, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and The Eight, Hamelin speaks as follows about the “Sonata Reminiscenza”:
Even if the title itself did not indicate reminiscence, there is definitely that feeling of looking back. I do not expect this sonata to lose the hold it has on me at any time in the future. There is nothing like the Reminiscenza in the literature. It is one of the most personal statements that I have known any composer to share. If it had been written later in Medtner’s life, it could well have served as a summation of life experiences: looking back with fondness over the good things one remembers and with regret at the negative events or those one is not proud of. It contains the richest concentration of conflicting emotions I have ever witnessed. Its sixteen minutes are a microcosm of life.
This video was recorded at the Casals Hall in Tokyo in 1997, at the same recital as the performance of Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” that I posted on this blog in October 2009. Like that video, the image quality is not the best, but the sound is excellent.