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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 50 (1909) [38:57] Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 (1922) [43:11]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. March 2016, Henry Wood Hall, London HYPERION CDA68145 [82:09]
Marc-André Hamelin and the Hyperion label have been strong ambassadors for Nikolai Medtner in the past, even competing with itself in this Second Concerto with Nikolai Demidenko’s recording part of their Romantic Piano Concerto series (review). This coupling of two concertos on a symphonic scale could hardly be more appropriate, with both composers sharing a powerful performance pedigree and both sharing common aesthetics and a close friendship.
Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 2 keeps us waiting until the Romanza second movement before hitting us with anything that looks like a ‘big tune’, and even here there is a restlessness that makes the theme hard to pin down. This recording’s balance of rich piano tone and the colourful partnership of the LSO works well. It creates a sense of partnership between soloist and orchestra, a strong aspect of this score, as do the sensitive ears of conductor and pianist in wringing out its every dynamic nuance. What I find interesting about this recording is its evocation of period, something comparable with Gershwin in this regard, though of course in contrasting styles. Geoffrey Douglas Madge on the BIS label (review) with the Artur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orchestra under Ilya Stupel is much more effusively romantic, wearing hearts on sleeves where Hamelin and Jurowski are more controlled. Just take that build up to the first climax in the second movement as an example. Where there is strength in reserve on this Hyperion recording Madge and Stupel generously pour almost everything onto the table with a tremendous ‘wow’ factor, but with further to go to rebuild further along. The final movement’s momentary associations with Tchaikovsky are familiar, but I also found my mind recalling Sibelius in some of the colours Jurowski conjures from the LSO. Francis Pott’s notes on this concerto point out the sunny wit in this movement, and this certainly comes through in this performance, the folk-music references and almost cartoonishly skittish fragments of orchestration played with a light touch to contrast with those weighty tuttis.
Placing these concertos in this order works well, Medtner’s joyous romp of a finale moving nicely into the refined elegance of Rachmaninov’s opening to the Piano Concerto No. 3. I worry a little about the pitch of piano and orchestra here, the piano seemingly a little under the orchestra, but perhaps I’m being overly picky as this isn’t an issue once things have warmed up. Hyperion competes with itself again in this concerto, with Stephen Hough’s Dallas/Litton set generating mixed responses (review). My own ‘go to’ recording for this work is that with Martha Argerich (review) which, despite its minor flaws is still a tremendous classic. Hyperion’s recording is more sumptuous and of course avoids the live coughs, but Hamelin’s remarkable, effortless sounding resolutions of this work’s technical demands are a true delight. He reins in the pace a little too much for the return of the opening theme at 7:20 in the first movement – a moment that should spring back from the previous ritenuto, and the tempo is quite a bit more expansive than with Argerich, coming in around two minutes longer but somehow avoiding a sense of drag – the momentum again controlled, but still with plenty of passion. That gorgeous central Adagio brings out some nice playing from the LSO winds and some cinematic emotions from the strings. The final movement comes in at a respectable 14:38 compared to Argerich’s more extreme 13:20 or so before the applause kicks in. The balance between accuracy and detail is once again laudable, though it’s worth knowing that there are more exciting rides to be had elsewhere. Similar pacing to Argerich can be found with Valentina Lisitsa on the Decca label (review) again with the LSO on good form. Looking for comparable timings for Hamelin I unearthed my copy of John Lill’s Nimbus recording (review) which has many fine qualities but, bathing in the Brangwyn Hall’s resonance, can lose on orchestral detail. This also shows how, even with almost identical timings in the outer movements, slowness can weigh heavily on a score which at times just has to be let loose like a pack of dogs.
All in all this is very much a disc worth acquiring for its superb musicianship and Marc-André Hamelin’s very fine, at times almost superhuman playing. This is the kind of recording we would have played in the shop as ‘a winner’ in the days when such record shops still thrived.