© Siebe Riedstra, December 2009
Yevgeny Sudbin and BIS have opted for a pragmatic approach in recording the three piano concertos by Nikolai Medtner. They combine live performances with recording sessions at the venues where Sudbin happens to have been invited to play them. This way, they were able to record the first piano concertos of Medtner and Tchaikovsky in Brazil with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Neschling, who has already given us some fine Villa-Lobos with the same orchestra, also for BIS. For the second installment they went north, to the United States. Grant Llewellyn is music director of the North Carolina Symphony, and that orchestra made their first recording for a major label a short while ago, also for BIS. It all speaks of a healthy symbiosis between soloist, orchestra, conductor and record label.
For this issue Yevgeny Sudbin pursues a very coherent and interesting goal: to combine the Second Concerto of Medtner with the Fourth of Rachmaninov. Being close friends, they dedicated these pieces - which stylistically go very well together - to one another. It makes one wonder what Sudbin will come up with for the third installment.
Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951) composed almost exclusively for the piano, alone or in combination with orchestra, the human voice or other instruments. His Second Piano Concerto was written in France in 1926/27. The first movement is a Toccata in sonata form, of which Medtner was an avowed master. The second movement combines muted nostalgia with a lusty scherzo. The finale is an exuberant divertimento cum rondo, in which themes from the past make their appearance - both from the first two movements and a more general musical past, which includes some references to works by Rachmaninov. Medtner is often referred to as 'the poor man's Rachmaninov', and lack of recognition plagued him during his lifetime, and long thereafter. Nowadays things might seem different, with recordings of the concertos by Nikolai Demidenko (Hyperion), the late lamented Geoffey Tozer (Chandos), and Konstantin Scherbakov (Naxos), but it is still a fact that these concertos are rarely featured in concert performances. A pity, because they offer everything admirers of the great romantic piano tradition love to hear.
Sergej Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was equally unlucky with his Fourth Concerto, which had an unsuccessful première in Philadelphia in 1927. The composer immediately set out to make extensive revisions and published the score in 1928. When that did not seem to help, he withdrew the piece altogether. Only in 1941 he made further, more extensive revisions, cutting more than one hundred bars of music. Although one performance of this revised version has become a classic of the gramophone through the hands of Arturo-Benedetti Michelangeli, that has not spurred many other pianists into action and the piece is still a rare beast on the concert podium. Sudbin has decided to play the original version, and in doing so makes a strong case for it. This concerto will never attain the status of number two and three, but fans of the Symphonic Dances and the equally enigmatic Third Symphony will find much to enjoy.
Yevgeny Sudbin (1980, St. Petersburg) has lived in London since 1997. He records exclusively for BIS and is in the middle of a seven year contract which should yield fourteen recordings. The fact that these performances were taped in Sao Paulo and North Carolina is indicative of his status at the moment of recording, but his fame is spreading very swiftly. Both his playing and the liner notes that he wrote for this issue show us a brilliant musician with a very perceptive and intelligent mind. His playing is healthy and lean: not for him the excesses that Volodos or Lang-Lang seem to enjoy so much. He lets the composer speak with his natural voice. At the same time, there is no limit to his technical prowess and his range of dynamic shading is very impressive and immensely poetic. A great career in the making.