Medtner, music, and me

by Mr. Schmonz (written 14 November 2007)

Yevgeny Sudbin wouldn't have programmed Medtner's Sonata-Reminiscenza in recital unless he felt a very strong affinity for the music. When you're a rising star, trying to fill seats and make your name, you play mostly standard repertoire. Of course, Medtner is the reason my particular seat was filled. On a billboard outside the Met with my mother I had seen first that name, then that piece, then that pianist, and immediately commenced palpitating.

I'd heard Sudbin play Medtner before: his recording of the first concerto is extremely good and on the same disc he manages to make the old Tchaikovsky warhorse sound fresh and vital. Heck, the guy even writes his own liner and program notes. All signs point to an engaged and expressive pianist, which only served to make last night's New York recital all the more disappointing. The opening Haydn was pleasant and playful, and the Medtner started off well enough. One of Sudbin's unusual interpretive choices I found very pleasing, others I found curious -- in particular, his elision (in the French sense) across distinct sections of the piece, blurring those distinctions -- but the playing was assured, and thus was I, until his first forgetful spell.

Knowing the piece as well as I do, I found myself nervous on his behalf. Would he be able to recover? He did fake his way back, mostly one-handed, but the persuasion was gone. His playing was rushed, as though (correctly) anticipating further memory lapses; his pedaling heavy; his dynamics exaggerated; his phrasing hyperstylized, steely and overloud except when suddenly overgentle. This exquisite sonata, with its pleadingly austere emotion and its ineluctably intertwined melodies, was reduced to an angry blur. How could anyone discern in it the presence of sublime secrets? Hot under the collar, I cut out of there at halftime and made a beeline for a campus piano to set things right.

Three weeks ago I had as yet never heard a live performance of the Sonata-Reminiscenza, so it seems daft to be ungrateful to Sudbin for bringing it to my backyard -- except that two and a half weeks ago I schlepped to a church in White Plains to hear Spencer Myer play it before an audience of a scant few dozen. Myer overcame a terribly limited instrument to make a persuasive case. "This guy deserves a bigger stage," I opined to a fellow Medtner fan afterwards. May this pianist be found!

My strong reactions to Myer's and Sudbin's performances remind me that though I am neither its creator nor its quintessential interpreter, the Sonata-Reminiscenza in some way belongs to me. It is ineluctably intertwined with my return to music. When I play it, I remember how daunting everything seemed two years ago: how rusty my equipment, how ardent my desire, how staggering the task, were it possible at all. So if for a professional pianist with a large repertoire and a national tour my dear sonata means something less than life or death, how can I blame him for giving it short shrift on a bad day at the office? His goals are not mine. His feelings are not mine.

When I returned to college in fall 2005, after many years away from the piano, it was time to start playing again. Lacking a teacher, and needing work in every imaginable area, I sought a piece that would be endlessly fascinating to study. As a listener I knew Medtner well by then, thanks to Marc-Andre Hamelin's box set of the sonatas. In Hamelin's words:

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.

That had certainly agreed with my experience. As a listener, I loved the Sonata-Reminiscenza most; for me, it does everything music can do. Then I saw what Hamelin had to say about it:

There are profound emotional worlds in this piece that cannot easily be translated into words; such music expresses the indefinable. Surprisingly, my first experience with the Reminiscenza wasn't very good. I found its structure and ideas weak, but tried again; it did not take more than a week before I needed it every day.

That settled it. This was the piece for me. Never mind that there were long stretches of notes I had no inkling of how to approach playing, or that I'd never had to think about maintaining simultaneous distinct voices, or that I'd never played anything on such a grand scale. All the reasons why it seemed far too much to start with became, solely through willfully myopic enthusiasm and devotion, reasons why it was just the right challenge to chew on for a while. Lost in thickets of notes, I would notice that my back hurt and realize that hours had passed. My practicing had never had this kind of intensity before. The score would pose technical challenges beyond my ken; without a teacher to help unravel them, I had no choice but to assume a solution existed, then run a series of experiments to find it. I needed this music. I had no choice but to get my hands to do the things the music demanded; I had no choice but to make myself able to play it. After a few of the technical problems gave way, the remainder became increasingly urgent; maybe, if they weren't impossible, I'd be able to play the whole thing after all. One by one, they fell. By my second semester I could mostly play through the sonata. It was another year before I could play it with some authority and style. All the while, if a few days somehow passed without my playing it, I would feel unaccountably strange until I remembered why. Once again I found myself feeling just what Hamelin felt, this time as a pianist, and if you know the level of his musicianship, you can well imagine my thrill.

It's been two years since I read haltingly through the score of the Sonata-Reminiscenza for the first time. It still feels miraculous that on any given day, I can sit down at a piano and play it as I feel it. I hope much more music awaits me. But if I were fated to have this sonata and nothing more, it would be enough.

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