Medtner: Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2

Jayson Gillham, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey

Medtner: Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2
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Medtner: Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2

Jayson Gillham, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey

Young Australian pianist Jayson Gillham presents his third album on ABC Classics, featuring the music of two Russian friends and piano virtuosi: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 - one of the most eternally popular pieces of classical music - and the rarely performed Piano Concerto No.1 by Nikolai Medtner, written just 15 years later. For these recordings, Gillham is joined in the studio by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and their Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey.

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) was a close friend of Rachmaninoff (they even dedicated various pieces to one another) but history has treated their music very differently. The great Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer, who died in 2009, was a rare champion of Medtner’s music, and it was when Gillham was invited to feature in a documentary on Tozer’s life that he discovered Medtner’s work.

Dedicated to his mother, Medtner’s Piano Concerto No.1 was written during the First World War. The intense drama of the music - brought out in vivid technicolour in these recordings - is irresistible, but so too is the consolatory power of music. We discover the healing balm of music again in Angel, Medtner’s work for solo piano: a meditation, as Gillham puts it, on “the rediscovery of a divine song, half-remembered, half-forgotten, of a beauty that cannot be matched on earth”.

Gillham first performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 with the MSO in Melbourne’s outdoor Sidney Myer Music Bowl: that concert was greeted with rapture by both the critics and a cheering audience of thousands. Renewing their association in the studio just weeks later, Gillham and the Orchestra unveil fresh richness in this beloved music. The concerto is paired with the contemporaneous Prelude Op.23 No.4, which shares the same “blissful contentment”.

Review

I love discovering new (but old and forgotten) composers and their long-neglected compositions. Everyone knows Rachmaninoff, his famous piano concertos (the second of which is on this album) and symphonic works. However, one of his closest friends, Nikolai Medtner, was also a composer. The pair often dedicated pieces to each other. Rachmaninoff’s music is stupendously famous and consistently performed, while Medtner has languished in obscurity. A number of high-profile musicians have tried to reignite interest in this composer over the years and after listening to this album on repeat for the last few days, I can only hope Medtner’s works will be recorded more frequently, as I’ve fallen in love.

Medtner was a proficient piano player, which meant he included piano as a major instrument and tonality in all his compositions. What’s interesting about his style is that several of his major works, including many sonatas and his piano concertos, are large single-movement works. There are seamless transitions between the musical ideas, and it takes a couple of listens before you truly get how the musical ideas all fit together. This album is dedicated to his mother (his original piano teacher). The soaring string section takes the virtuosic opening piano ideas and spreads them around. With clear influences from Rachmaninoff in tonality and melody, you still wouldn’t mistake Medtner for anyone but himself.

The other bonus to this recording is the fact that it is performed by an all-star Australian cast. Our very own Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, under assistant conductor Benjamin Northey, with the internationally renowned piano soloist Jayson Gillham, pull together to create a beautiful rendition of the beloved Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 along with Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and a sweet Medtner Prelude breaking up the epic symphonic works.

(As a footnote for the book nerds, Philip Pullman said Medtner was his favourite composer in an interview in 2011.)


Kate Rockstrom is a friend of Readings.

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