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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Sergei Rachmaninoff called his Russian contemporary Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) the greatest composer of his generation, and yet Medtner's music is rarely performed today. Perhaps this is because Medtner was singularly devoted to his own instrument, the piano -- but the same focus on the piano did not keep Chopin from being consistently in the standard repertoire. In any case, while never especially popular, Medtner did develop somewhat of a cult following, especially in England where he settled in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, Medtner's patron Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the last Maharaja of Mysore and the first president of the Philharmonia Orchestra, paid to have all of Medtner's extant works recorded. As a result, despite his relative obscurity, we have high-quality recordings of his entire output.

Medtner's influence on others, too, went far beyond his own music. Rachmaninoff's 4th piano concerto was composed for Medtner, who was also a virtuoso pianist. One of his students, Alexander Alexandrov, composed the iconic Soviet (now Russian) national anthem.

Medtner's Piano Quintet was his last composition to be completed, but one of the first that he began. By the time he completed it in 1949, he had been working on it, on and off, for 46 years. The entire piece is deeply spiritual from beginning to end. Some of the musical material comes from Russian Orthodox chants. Other melodies, though purely instrumental, are written as if setting words to music; for these, Medtner selected Bible verses with particular autobiographical meaning. Still other passages include brief allusions to Medtner's other compositions. Unusually, the third and last movement of this quintet is the longest and most substantial, tying together elements from the first two movements along with new themes in a polyphonic whirlwind. Finally, the third movement code ends the piece with a joyous fantasia on a hymn-like theme introduced earlier in the movement.

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Andrew

September 2017

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