Life in a Nutshell: Medtner’s Piano Quintet

In 1940, Sergei Rachmaninov completed his Symphonic Dances, a work which was destined to be his last major composition. Replete with quotations from orthodox chants and his own setting of the liturgy All-Night Vigil, the work served as a summary of his fascination with Russian liturgical music, as well as an expression of nostalgia towards a deeply religious Russian culture that was all but lost in the outlawing of religion in the Soviet Union. Since its premiere in 1941, it has gone on to become a staple of the repertoire, cherished by music lovers for its impeccable craftsmanship and innovative orchestration, not to mention the sheer melodic inspiration typical of Rachmaninov.

While all of this was happening, his friend and contemporary Nikolai Medtner was toiling away on his Piano Quintet. Like Rachmaninov with his Symphonic Dances, Medtner regarded his quintet as a summation, in this case of his entire musical life. Also like Rachmaninov, the piece would be highly influenced by orthodox music, and would become his last completed composition. Unlike Rachmaninov, however, Medtner’s final testament would not take off in popularity. Indeed, Medtner’s oeuvre in general had never been met with the sort of adulation that greeted Rachmaninov’s in his lifetime, and most of his work languished into obscurity after his death in 1951. Even today, despite considerable efforts to revive his (mainly piano) music on recordings, Medtner is still regarded as a second-rate, second-tier composer of music of convoluted harmonies and scant melodic genius (“Rachmaninov without the tunes”, as it were). The Piano Quintet in particular has never gotten much love even compared to his piano concertos or sonatas; to date, only a handful of recordings exist.

This is a true shame, for I know of few other works that are so spiritually enriching, both in the chamber music literature and beyond. From its tranquil, meditative beginning to its optimistic finale, the Piano Quintet is a wonderfully sincere, uniquely moving encapsulation of Medtner’s compositional mastery developed over the course of his lifetime. And I challenge anyone who believes that Medtner couldn’t write a tune to save his life to hear this and emerge not humming that hymn in the last movement. Little wonder that Rachmaninov, the great tunesmith, deemed Medtner “the greatest composer of our time”.

The music

The tranquil opening of the work, with gentle arpeggiated figures on the piano and flecks of string pizzicati.

Medtner had good reason to regard the Piano Quintet as the ultimate synthesis of his oeuvre: he worked on the piece throughout his life, sketching it in around 1903 and completing it in 1949. Along with his Piano Sonata No. 1 and the Sonata Reminiscenza, I regard it as one of Medtner’s most inspired works, one that fuses melodic inventiveness with keen compositional craftsmanship.

I could talk bar by bar about how Medtner’s genius is manifest in the work, but I believe a few examples should suffice. The very opening of the work is one of the most evocative in the literature. Marked molto placido, it begins with broad arpeggiated triplets from the depths of the piano and quiet flecks of string pizzicati, and gives way to a sombre theme in the cello which is passed on to the first violin as they make their way to the first ray of light at letter A in the score. The juxtaposition between the triplet and duple metre, as well as the key centers of E minor and C (lydian), creates a wonderful sense of harmonic ambiguity that permeates throughout most of the movement; it is only at the Maestoso after letter G that C major is declared the victor.

Then there’s the second movement, which starts antiphonally with a chorale in the strings that is echoed in the piano. Here the reference to Orthodox chant is most obvious, and the overall meditative, melancholic aura brings to mind the Adagio of another neglected chamber masterpiece, Alkan’s Cello Sonata.

And to cap it all off, there’s the formidable last movement, written in a complex sonata form and almost as long as the first two combined. The “big tune”, a disarmingly simple (and stubbornly catchy) idea marked quasi Hymn, is first introduced in the piano and afterwards recapitulated by the strings, gathering confidence as the music progresses. It all ends in a thrilling coda, unabashedly optimistic and full of jubilation. The work’s affective trajectory reminds me of the verse in the Gospel, “your sorrow will be turned into joy”.

But to simply call this work a well-crafted and tuneful chamber work is to damn it with faint praise. Plenty of pieces by other composers could fit this description. What makes it special is a certain spiritual quality that reaches into the depths of one’s soul, a je ne sais quoi that is as much a function of its compositional circumstances and hommage to ancient church music as it is due to Medtner’s ear for color and masterful structural grasp. Fervent, sincere, personal, and above all intensely soulful, Medtner’s Piano Quintet certainly is one of the most deeply satisfying works ever written.

Further reading

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