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Medtner’s First Piano Concerto isn’t played or recorded all that often – what drew you to this music?
I was asked to be involved in a documentary about the Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer, who, as well as being one of the greatest pianists Australia has ever produced, was a great lover and advocate of Medtner’s music. The piece I would learn during the process of the documentary was the Medtner First Piano Concerto – and this is how I became exposed to this music. I was immediately gripped by the startling opening of this work, and captivated by the uniqueness of the harmonic and rhythmic complexity.
Of the few recordings that are out there, are there any versions you particularly admire? Why?
My introduction to the piece was of course Geoffrey’s landmark recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Neeme Järvi, full of rhythmic drive and energy. Later I found a perhaps more romantic approach in Yevgeny Sudbin's recording, and after contacting Sudbin he suggested I also have a listen to Igor Zhukov's recording, which in the end I found the most compelling of those available.
Pianist Jayson Gillham. Photo © Scott Tresham
What are the biggest challenges for a pianist performing this music?
The Medtner First is a huge work, at times it feels fragmentary, and yet it is contained within a very clever formal design. The piece is written as if it is one long Sonata-Allegro form, with the development section taking the form of a set of variations on all the themes that have been presented earlier. These variations have the danger of sounding somewhat fragmentary and so while it is imperative to give each variation its unique character to maximise contrast, it is also important not to lose sight of the overall shape of the piece – keeping the tension simmering, gradually raising the temperature to the climax at the recapitulation, and then maintaining the line through the Coda and not relaxing too soon. It’s a very unusual ending in that it relaxes into a kind of surreal peace (perhaps this is the peace after the First World War, an emotionally exhausted peace, yet nevertheless retaining a sense of hope). So solving this ending is tricky.
Why did you choose to pair it with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto?
A few reasons – the friendship and shared nationality between Medtner and Rachmaninov, as well as the fact that I had recently enjoyed a rewarding partnership with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Ben Northey performing the Rach Two at the Myer Bowl only a couple of months before our recording. It’s a huge contrast from the Medtner: the unceasing melodic gorgeousness and shameless romantic indulgences of the Rach Two are nowhere to be found in Medtner's writing, where obsessive polyrhythms and dense harmonies take centre stage and the writing is motivic and developmental rather than purely melodic. I think the works complement each other beautifully.
Parallels are often drawn between Medtner’s work and that of Rachmaninov – for you, what are the most striking similarities and differences?
I suppose I've noted some major differences above, but similarities I suppose would be that they are both very carefully crafted, they are both pianist-composers, they are both conservative in their harmony for their time, but both with a unique and recognisable harmonic language. I suppose you could say that Medtner is more like Schumann, with Rachmaninov more like Chopin. This would be a gross oversimplification and would probably make many a musicologist roll their eyes in shame, but I do think it explains something of the differences. At least the way it feels for me to play and how it sits under the hand – obviously Rachmaninov had much larger hands than Chopin, but they both have an arpeggiated, open, kind of liquid feel to their writing, whereas Medtner is more chordal and feels more ‘chunky’ like Schumann. Medtner also has some of the obsessive rhythmic tendencies of Schumann.
Are there any interpretations of the Rachmaninov that influenced your own, one way or another?
I have listened to quite a few. Richter is unsurpassable and inimitable as always, but I’ve always wanted to be able to find a way of capturing the dark and weighty ‘Russian’ character he finds in the first movement, especially the opening. I’ve always loved Byron Janis’ recording, particularly the last movement – of its time and very American in a way, but just sublime, and of course Rachmaninov’s own recording has been hugely influential and has helped me to challenge myself to not be afraid to try something different. Rachmaninoff seems so free in his recording and yet he doesn't mess around with rubato very much. It’s very refreshing to hear after all of the so-called ‘standard’ recordings.
Did you and Benjamin Northey have different ideas on how to approach these two works?
I am so pleased to report that for Ben and I (and I think I can speak on Ben's behalf here), we both had such an enjoyable time working together and with the wonderful musicians of the MSO. We very quickly came to agreement on basically everything, and I never felt that I had to compromise any aspect of my interpretation. Quite the opposite – Ben very much supported me and enabled me to play my best. We both liked the idea of making the Rachmaninov less laboured, without unnecessary rubato, more flowing, but without losing the intensity of the Russian sound. With the Medtner, it was a journey of discovery for both of us, but we gelled very quickly.
The concertos are balanced by the Medtner Prologue and Rachmaninov Prelude, what speaks to you about those particular pieces?
The Medtner Prologue, Op. 1 No 1, known as ‘the Angel’, is a very special piece and now I'm listening to more Medtner I feel it is actually quite unusual for his output. It is so pristine and effortless in its construction, the way it flows, and completely astounding for the fact that it was written when Medtner was only 17. The story is that an Angel delivers a child down to Earth on the wings of the most beautiful song, with that mortal human spending the rest of his life trying to remember and recapture the perfection and beauty of this essential heavenly song. It is in many ways a metaphor for Medtner’s compositional approach – he was always striving towards this fundamental or essential beauty, and I think he felt, as every artist does really, that this kind of perfection is always out of reach, but our job as artists is to keep it in our sights and strive towards it even if we never quite touch it.
The Rachmaninov D Major Prelude, Op. 23 No 4, was written at a very similar time to the Second Concerto. It comes from a very happy period where Rachmaninov was in love and he and his wife were welcoming their first child into the world. It’s again an unashamed outpouring of love, and no matter how many times I play it, it never fails to tug at the heart strings and make me happy to be alive.
Has this recording inspired you to delve into more Medtner in future?
Yes. Definitely. I need to do my research but I am excited to listen and explore more of Medtner’s music!
Jayson Gillham's recording of Medtner and Rachmaninov, out now on ABC Classics, is Limelight's Recording of the Month for September 2017.