The Piano Quintet’s puzzling obscurity is evidenced by the fact that there are only about six or seven recordings ever made of the work to date; most of them are long out-of-print. Here I consider three that may be relatively easy to encounter.
The Historical Choice: Svetlanov/Borodin Quartet
- Evgeny Svetlanov (piano); Borodin Quartet
- Recorded 1968
- Evgeny Svetlanov Foundation SVET (1CD)
This recording is probably the earliest stereo recording of this piece (Medtner himself recorded it with the Aeolian Quartet in 1948), and has been floating around on several labels with different couplings (Russian Disc, Svetlanov Foundation, Warner’s Official Svetlanov Edition). It’s easy to understand this recording’s attraction: not only does it feature the great Borodin Quartet, it’s also a rare document of Svetlanov exchanging his baton for the ivories. In fact, Svetlanov was trained as a pianist by Maria Gurvich who was a pupil of Medtner, and was also a major champion of his works on recordings.
As you would expect from such an illustrious team, they deliver an atmospheric, engaging reading. The Borodin Quartet’s intensely vocal, dusky sonority sounds like they were made for Medtner’s music; likewise Svetlanov’s delicate touch and golden tone. And it’s all captured in perfectly serviceable sound. My only reservation concerning this performance is some surprisingly shoddy passagework on the part of Svetlanov, most noticeably in the Finale; the way that he slurs through those runs is embarrassing and quite frankly a bit amateurish. As it stands, I can’t really recommend this recording as a first exposure to the work; seasoned Medtnerians would do well to look past this fly in the ointment and enjoy this beautifully idiomatic rendition.
A warmly expressive, thoroughly idiomatic performance on the whole, though if you listen closely, Svetlanov’s passagework is quite untidy, the only major liability here. Whether you can ignore that is your call.
If you have no choice: Scherbakov et al.
- Konstantin Scherbakov (piano); Ewald Danel (violin I); Milan Tedla (violin II); Zuzana Bourova (viola); Jozef Podhoransky (cello)
- Recorded 1996
- Naxos 8.553390 (1CD)
This recording defines the word “serviceable”. The underrated Konstantin Scherbakov does very well here for the most part, playing with the sensitivity and assurance that characterizes most of his other recordings. The Slovak string quartet also plays with good rhythm and virtuosity. But compare this to any of the other recordings mentioned here and you’ll realize that something is missing: this is a cool, sterile reading, with nary a trace of soulfulness or passion. It’s merely correct.
At times, though, it isn’t even that. It’s a rather unfortunate, and unmusical, affair that Scherbakov decides to slow the pace at the hymn tune in the finale, contrary to what is explicitly marked in the score (sempre a tempo; always in tempo). It’s clear that Medtner was right. Rather than giving more emphasis to the tune (as I suspect might have been his intention) Scherbakov makes it sound disjointed in relation to the overarching structure.
Another problem concerns the violin playing, which sounds thin and shrill in the high registers. I doubt that it’s the fault of the recording, which otherwise sounds very natural and flattering to the other players. Given the general proficiency of the playing, as well as the budget price and general availability of Naxos recordings (both physically and on streaming), this might serve as an adequate introduction to the work. It could have been a go-to recommendation, but alas it is not.
Some interpretative quibbles and a malnourished violin tone prevent this recording from doing full justice to Medtner’s genius.
The Modern Classic: Alexeev/New Budapest Quartet
- Dmitri Alexeev (piano); New Budapest Quartet
- Recorded 1994
- Hyperion CDA66744 (1CD)
This recording was my introduction to the work, and has remained my reference ever since. The execution by Dmitri Alexeev and the New Budapest Quartet is of the utmost in virtuosity and beauty, but it’s clear that these aims are in full service of the music, for they also play with a depth, sensitivity, and soulfulness that surpasses the great Borodiners. From the soul-searching opening to the tour de force coda of the finale, there is a sense of naturalness and flow that no other recording quite achieves. Hyperion’s engineering is, as always, state-of-the-art.
There’s no need to belabor the point: with the possible exception of Zilberstein et al.’s 2012 recording (in the Martha Argerich Lugano box, and otherwise not considered here), this is by far the best Medtner Quintet of them all, and I can think of no better way to get to know this masterpiece.
A masterful and deeply engaging performance where nobody puts a foot wrong. Alexeev and his Hungarian team present Medtner’s masterwork in the best light.