A perfect pairing: Rachmaninov with his friend Medtner

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 09.02.2016

Pianist Alexander Paley brings together some rarely heard and nicely coherent pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Medtner, close friends from their Moscow student days, in a new CD (La Musica LMU005). The 14 selections call for a wide range of moods and styles and the Moldavia-born Paley seems to relish the challenge. Towering technical feats aside, there is no sign of effort on his part.

Paley’s choice of this repertoire is a sign of his dedication to some of the rich but neglected Russian repertoire. His impeccable, sensitive playing deserves far more attention than he has attracted thus far.

All tracks from the album are sampled here.

The two composers studied together at Moscow Conservatory, opting to focus on piano writing. The CD booklet in three languages rightly calls them “brothers in art”. Buffeted by the Russian Revolution, however, Rachmaninov emigrated first to France, then to the United States. Medtner’s intellectual-philosophical foundations found less favor in France or Germany, and he settled in London in 1935. 

Paley, a reserved but strong personality, has led a life equally mouvementée, defecting to the United States in 1988 and taking U.S. citizenship. He now divides his time between New York and Paris.

In this recording, Medtner’s A-minor sonata Op. 38, the “Sonata Reminisczenza”, opens with Paley’s light touch on a Schumannesque figure that gradually grows on itself and becomes alternately lyrical and grandiose. The single-movement sonata was written after the Bolshevik revolution and serves as a look back to lost times, when Medtner led a more comfortable, predictable life.

Paley follows the piece with the even more daunting, not to say inaccessible, Sonata No. 5 in G-minor Op. 22. Liszt can be heard in the subthemes and late Beethoven is not far away. Again, the technical challenges seem to pose no problem for Paley.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin Op. 28 offer a fascinating look into the composer’s free-roaming mind, taking the very simple C-minor Prelude (every schoolgirl’s first taste of Chopin) and spinning it into a carnival of twists and turns. Composers from Bach to Schubert, to Beethoven, Liszt and up to Webern and Copland, have turned to the variation as a creative exercise. Rachmaninov’s fall somewhere in mid-field – on the cusp of modernity.

Paley introduces the theme with an ethereal feel, then goes on to 12 effusive and raucous versions. The ornamentation takes great liberties, dancing away from the melody and returning home, only to dance away once more. Paley never loses control of these flights, some of which are definitely “out there”.

Paley’s career trajectory has taken him around the world with his broad repertoire of solo, chamber and concerto works and his widely admired artistic and technical prowess. Also an active promoter of great music, his “Music at the Moulin” festival in Normandy is celebrating its 25th year. And the Alexander Paley Music Festival in Richmond, Virginia, stages its 19th edition in September.


Related article:

Alexander Paley interview: ‘Classical music is not foreverybody’

by Michael Johnson

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