Nikolai Medtner’s music seems still to be an arcane area of the repertoire, so it is good that at least some leading pianists are programming it. Here Medtner benefited from the eloquent advocacy of his compatriot Alexei Volodin, opening his all-Russian recital with a group of the Skazki – or “Tales”. The usual translation of “Fairy Tales” is inaccurate it seems, although in fact some of these dense, elusive, short pieces contain plenty to frighten the children, not least those learning the instrument.

Alexei Volodin © Marco Borggreve
Alexei Volodin
© Marco Borggreve

The composer told a pupil to play the sorrowful Op.20 no.1, “with a fervent entreaty” and Volodin duly obliged, right up to its con disperazione climax. Its companion, Op.20 no.2 is titled “Campanella”, but its ferocious rhythms are far from the tinkling chimes of Liszt’s study. Volodin’s manner was implacable. He never indulged in any special pleading for this music by softening its outlines, though perhaps he should. In fact the awkward skipping manner of Op.34 no.3 can seem wilfully uningratiating, but its shifts of mood were aided by Volodin’s alert pedalling. The pianist also showed persuasive skill elucidating Medtner’s often knotty textures. The group closed with the stormily passionate Op.35 no.4, its quote from the storm scene of King Lear reflected in the pianistic tumult Volodin unfolded... and the storm of applause that followed. Quite a few of us resolved to look further into Medtner’s work after that.

Prokofiev’s Third Sonata is the shortest of his series of nine, its single movement playing for less than eight minutes. Like the Fourth Sonata it is based on much earlier material. The opening Allegro tempestoso ,with its fanfare call-to-arms, driving triplet motion and dotted rhythms, was commandingly stated by Volodin, who can make the instrument roar without the sound becoming harsh. He finds too the lyrical seam often hidden within teeming passagework and coped admirably with the sonata’s frequent shifts of mood. This piece has a lot to say in its brief duration, and Volodin made its sections cohere into a single compelling span. He also often drew a beautiful singing sound from his immaculately prepared Steinway.

Medtner, a doctrinaire anti-modernist, was no fan of Prokofiev’s music, so might have disliked sharing a first half with that enfant terrible. But he was a great friend and admirer of Rachmaninov, whose magnificent First Sonata appeared in 1907, the year of Prokofiev’s birth. It is half an hour longer than Prokofiev’s Third, and while as expansive in gesture as the later work is compressed, it too has a unifying scheme, with motifs from the first movement recurring in the next two. Volodin’s powerful interpretation was very attuned to the need to make those moments of reminiscence (and often transformation) fully register, as signposts on a long journey to assure us we are not lost.

There was on occasion some impressionist colour, the chant-like second theme of the first movement sounded with the solemn fervour of a procession of Orthodox monks. The slow movement, which in the abandoned Faust programme for the work depicts Gretchen, here sounded like whispered sentiments overheard on an Arcadian summer night at Ivanovka, the composer’s estate, so intimate and confiding was the playing. The headlong drive of Volodin’s immensely energetic account of the finale swept all before it, but still allowed room for that touchingly poetic backward glance, as the opening theme of the work returned for one last time, to set the seal on a fine recital. It deserved a fuller house, but perhaps Medtner is still frightening away the adults as well as the children.

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