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Russian Soul

Medtner, Rachmaninoff and Arensky, Le Salon de Musiques, February 9th 2014 —

Moves Pogossian, Mona Golabek, John Walz, Edith Orloff

The latest presentation from Le Salon de Musiques—the fifth in its season of nine chamber music concerts—took place on February 9th. The setting, overlooking downtown Los Angeles, was an intimate corner of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s fifth floor.  The program featured music by Russian composers—Sergei Rachmaninoff, Anton Arensky and Nikolai  Medtner—all born between 1861 and 1880 and each well-acquainted with the other two.  In his introduction, Le Salon’s artistic director Francois Chouchan said, “Tonight, when you listen to this music, I hope you will feel the Russian soul”.

Chouchan clearly loves music written in the Romantic and Neo-Romantic eras—roughly 1830 until just after 1900—and he schedules lots of it at Le Salon concerts.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, “composers generally classified as Romantic are of the period of Weber, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, etc., in whose music emotional and picturesque expression appeared to be more important than formal or structural considerations”.  Chouchan does not merely present music by Romantic composers who are “household names”; he resurrects once famous, now obscure artists—skilled writers and performers in their day—who have fallen out of favor, sometimes simply because their work is unavailable.  Several people sitting near my companion and I on February 9—all of us life-long classical music fans and regular concert-attendees—had never heard Nikolai Medtner’s name.  But when we heard his music, we were happily surprised.

The resident musicologist for Le Salon concerts is Julius Reder Carlson, a soft-spoken Ph.D. from UCLA whose introductory remarks provide a helpful history of the pieces to be played. Carlson noted that the German tradition of Romantic music, from Beethoven to Brahms, was widespread and much-favored by teachers and audiences in Imperial Russia.  The composers featured on February 9th were all raised in this cultural environment and all three led closely-interrelated lives.  “Arensky died young, in 1906, but he taught Medtner and Rachmaninoff”, Carlson explained.  “Even before the 1917 revolution, Rachmaninoff was a very successful virtuoso pianist.  He financially assisted Medtner, who was a fine performer but didn’t progress much beyond his old-style, German/Russian roots.  They both lived long lives—Rachmaninoff  becoming famous around the world while Medtner gradually slipped into obscurity—and they each dedicated a piano concerto to the other.  Rachmaninoff always said his friend was ‘the greatest composer of our time’ although most people would probably disagree with that.”

The first performance at the concert was written by the last-born of the Russians, Nikolai Medtner:  Two Canzonas with Two Dances for violin and piano, Op. 43 (1922).  The Italian meaning of “canzona” is “song” and although both of these began with a delicate sadness, they soon blossomed into rich, almost soaring melodies.  And the two dances definitely had the bright lilt of ethnic folk tunes, reminiscent of Medtner’s Hungarian contemporaries, Bartok and Kodaly.  The four brief pieces were performed by two excellent musicians, violinist Movses Pogossian and pianist Edith Orloff.  Pogossian had complete control of his antique instrument and displayed strength, emotion and clarity with every note he played.  The petite  Orloff, almost hidden behind Le Salon’s splendid Steinway piano, handled the score’s complexities with practiced ease.  Her many years as one-third of the Pacific Trio in Los Angeles make her the ideal musical companion for chamber music.  Every nuance of Pogossian’s violin and Orloff’s piano was deeply felt by the audience which, at Le Salon de Musiques, nearly surrounds the performers; everyone is seated within about 30 feet of the instruments.

Nikolai Medtner

The mysterious Nikolai Medtner was born in Moscow and lived with his parents until the chaos of the revolution. A professor of music until he began giving recitals and composing full-time, Medtner was certainly a great pianist.  He met and fell in love with a violinist named Anna, the wife of his brother, Emil, who was studying music in Germany. During World War I, Emil was interned and graciously divorced Anna so that Nikolai could marry her.  In 1921, the Medtners were allowed to travel and gave concerts throughout Europe. With rare exceptions, they never returned to Russia. After successful tours in the U. S. and Canada—arranged by their friend Rachmaninoff—Nikolai and Anna moved to Paris in 1925.  They met fellow Russians in “the City of Lights” which was, at that time, the cultural center of the world.  But Medtner’s music was even then considered old-fashioned.  (His gradually diminishing concerts featured just his own compositions, as a rule.)

In 1935, Rachmaninoff published Medtner’s book, The Muse and Fashion, in which the author basically dismissed modern music. Nikolai and Anna moved to London in the same year and, although he continued composing, he was becoming a forgotten figure. At the start of World War II, the 60-year old Medtner’s health began to decline and royalties from his German publishers ceased.  When bombs hit London during “the blitz”,  Medtner accepted an invitation from a former student to move to the safety of the English countryside.  Edna Isles (1905-2003), was a child prodigy who, in a remarkable coincidence, was the first British pianist to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3, when she was only 17.  She played for Medtner in 1930 and they became friends; in her long, international career as a soloist, she often featured his music. Nikolai and Anna lived with Edna Isles for 2 ½ years and his Piano Concerto #3 was composed at her home.  Increasing poor health—heart attacks would eventually end his life—forced Medtner to give up performing in public, but Isles continued to be his champion.  In a series of concerts in 1946, she performed all three of her mentor’s piano concertos—his only works for orchestra—with the London Symphony Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall.  Isles wrote articles about Medtner and featured his compositions at her concerts and recitals for the rest of her life.  Medtner said Edna Isles was “the bravest and ablest besieger of my musical fortresses”.

There was another generous, unexpected champion of Medtner’s work, late in the Russian’s life:  Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar or, as he was known to his subjects, the 25th and last Maharaja of Mysore, the “princely state” that was merged with the Republic of India after that country gained independence from England in 1947.  This benign, Indian patron of the arts, born in 1919,  never achieved his wish to become a concert pianist.  But he was a tireless supporter of Western as well as Indian music and the first president of London’s Philharmonia Concert Society.  A visitor noted that in one of the Maharaja’s palaces, “he had a record library containing every imaginable recording of serious music, a large range of loud speakers and several concert grand pianos”.  He also had a deep interest in Nikolai Medtner and decided to give the little-known music of “the Russian Brahms” a much wider exposure.  So, in 1949 the Maharaja founded the Medtner Society with the purpose of recording all of the composer’s works.  Medtner himself, despite his declining health, recorded all three piano concertos—dedicating the third to his Indian benefactor—several sonatas, songs and chamber pieces before his death three years later.  The music world owes thanks to the Maharaja of Mysore for preserving virtually the complete catalogue of Nikolai Medtner’s work and for allowing listeners to hear the composer himself actually playing the piano.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Next on the program were some early compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest pianists and composers of the 20th century. Born into an aristocratic family that was once quite wealthy—until his father gambled away all the money—young Sergei studied at St. Petersburg’s Conservatory and later in Moscow. An indifferent student who failed many classes, he was a musical prodigy who played piano brilliantly (with his unusually large hands) and was soon writing music.  Tchaikovsky took an interest in Sergei, mentoring him until his sudden death; Scriabin was a great friend until he, too, died.  He was in demand as a soloist and conductor but got occasional bad reviews; broken romances caused a depression that lasted for three years.  A tour of the U.S. in 1909 brought wider fame for Rachmaninoff but the 1917 revolution forced him to leave Russia, and the home he owned there, for good.  In time, he would have lucrative recording contracts, houses in Europe and Beverly Hills, endless tours and great wealth.  He died in 1943.  (Dr. Carlson noted Rachmaninoff’s reputed final words on his death bed: “goodbye, hands.”)

Prelude & Danse Orientale, Op. 2, was written for cello and piano when Rachmaninoff was only 19.  It began with a simple, lovely cello theme which was played by John Walz, the co-artistic director of Le Salon de Musiques and co-founder of the Pacific Trio.  He was joined by Edith Orloff on piano who segued into a somewhat darker mood in Rachmaninoff’s piece. One can hear hints of the composer’s later, larger works—the big sound of the symphonies and piano concerti—suggested in this quiet Prelude.  It seems as if every turn-of-the-century composer tried his or her hand at something musically “exotic” and Rachmaninoff was no exception; the lure of far-away lands and mysterious sounds must have been too great to leave unexplored.  His   Danse Orientale bears traces of the Middle East, of Central Asia, of Borodin’s music.  The cello was the lead in this short piece with the piano in support.

The Elegie in E Flat Minor, Op. 3 is a segment from a larger work called Morceaux de fantaisie which Rachmaninoff dedicated to Arensky, his Moscow Conservatory professor.  He was still a young man when he wrote the piece, but we can hear a rapidly maturing composer in the cello’s  sensitive, trembling strings  and the warm, melancholy piano. Walz and Orloff made this sad elegy memorable.

Anton Arensky

The final work of the concert was the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 32, written by Anton Arensky in 1894.  The son of amateur musicians, Arensky studied with Rimsky-Korsakov at the  St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduated with gold medals and became the youngest professor at Moscow University.  His students, as we know, included Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.  He wrote two symphonies, two operas, a ballet, a violin concerto and some chamber music and his best known work these days is the trio played at this concert.  (This writer has long admired the composer’s lovely waltz from his Suite for Two Pianos; a recording of it, made in 1929 by two legendary pianists, Bauer and Gabrilowitsch, can readily be found on YouTube.)  Arensky toured as a pianist and conductor but gambled, drank excessively and contracted tuberculosis.  He died in a sanitarium in Finland in 1906.  He was only 44.  His music gradually fell out of favor and even Rimsky-Korsakov had some truly unkind words about his former student: “In his youth, Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later, the influence came from Tchaikovsky.  He will quickly be forgotten”.

Happily, Le Salon de Musiques did not forget. Arensky’s trio was played by John Walz, cello, Movses Pogossian, violin and the noted concert pianist and Grammy nominee, Mona Golabek. The Allegro first movement was very lively, with organic, recurring themes and some extremely fast fingering required of Ms. Golabek.  The writing was beautiful and, whether or not it was influenced  by Tchaikovsky, it sounded to many ears exactly like Brahms.  The Scherzo second movement featured some difficult trills on the piano, plucked violin strings and a constantly busy cello united in a waltz.  (The composer’s father was a cellist and the trio was dedicated to a cellist friend of Arensky.)  The Elegia third movement was a delicate lullabye with a sweet melody played first on a muted cello, then on the violin, finally on piano. But the real musical fireworks were lit in the Finale.  You could hear the through line from Beethoven to Brahms to 1890’s Russia to the present day in the thrilling interchange between Walz, Pogossian and Golabek;  it was a rousing finish to Arensky’s music. And the adept, balanced work by the musicians made one think that a piano-violin-cello combination might just be the best of all possible trios.

Finally, continued thanks are owed to Francois Chouchan, John Walz and Julius Reder Carlson for putting together the Le Salon de Musiques concerts.  The world of classical music covers centuries and there are a thousand composers to enjoy.  Sometimes it’s pleasurable to hear selections that are NOT strictly on the “Top 100” list of audience favorites. That’s what’s so interesting about Le Salon: they play chamber music but not a steady diet of expected string quartets by Schubert, Beethoven and Schumann.  (We heard one by Reinhold Gliere this season that was wonderful and look forward to a Shostakovitch piano quintet in May).  Names that may be unfamiliar to us—Benjamin Godard (a prolific French composer), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (born of African and English parents; once a guest in Teddy Roosevelt’s White House), Xaver Scharwenka (a German pianist and teacher) and Reynaldo Hahn (a Venezuelan child prodigy)—all have works scheduled at Le Salon de Musiques in the next few weeks.  They were all born between 1849 and 1875 and all of them were very famous in their day.  Interested listeners can attend a concert or two and hear exactly why these now-obscure names, like Nikolai Medtner, still have a place in the colorful mosaic created by classical music.


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