Russian Composers: Rachmaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev

Russian Composers: Rachmaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

They were contemporaries. Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943) was born seven years earlier than Nicolay Medtner (1880–1951), who arrived a year before Sergey Prokofiev (1881–1953). Rachmaninov studied first at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, then at Moscow. Medtner studied at Moscow, then privately with Taneyev. Prokofiev received extensive tutoring at home, then spent ten tumultuous years at St. Petersburg; he also got encouragement from Taneyev.

All were pianists—which is a bit like saying that Newton, Einstein, and Bohr were all physicists. In fact, these three Russians were among the most accomplished keyboard artists of their generation, concertizing internationally and drawing upon their immense knowledge of the piano to create works for it that remain among the most performed music of the 20th century. We can only sample some of it here, but that should be enough to acquaint us (or remind us) of their prodigious individual talents.

Rachmaninov wrote his solo Préludes over a period of nearly twenty years. In a tradition established by Bach, Chopin, and others, he presented each in a different major or minor key, making a complete set of 24 miniatures. That’s no big deal; more significant is the astonishing range of emotions they demonstrate, plus the pianistic skills they demand. You probably know the first of his Préludes, written right after he graduated from conservatory in 1892:


In just a decade, Rachmaninoff came much more into his own, as shown in the Second Piano Concerto’s sumptuous harmonies and broad, singing melodies. A contemporaneous set of ten Préludes, op. 23, offers plenty of that but also shows a new sense of control: keyboard coloration is more often subdued and subtly varied, overall forms more concise and well-proportioned. Here is some of No. 3, a quasi-minuet (but listen to that errant, impertinent bass line):

Or No. 4, as lovely a tune as he ever wrote:

No. 9 sounds another fresh note:

And No. 5, marked Alla marcia:


The music we’ve been hearing comes mainly from Boris Giltburg’s new Naxos recording of the complete Préludes, which to my ears is quite competitive with Ms. Wang and various venerable masters like Sviatoslav Richter. Good sound, too.

With the thirteen Préludes of op. 32 (1910), Rachmaninov made it to 24. Perhaps these last works reflect the world of his Third Piano Concerto: moods are darker, harmonies more pungent. No. 10 reflects this deepened introspection:

In terms of technique, Rachmaninov continued to test the limits of players’ skill, as shown in No. 12:

Nice to have them all in a single collection.

It’s also nice to have Alexander Melnikov well-launched by Harmonia Mundi on a three-album set of Prokofiev piano sonatas. Prokofiev never drank as deeply of the Romantic Kool-Aid as had Rachmaninov. You can clearly hear the younger man’s turn toward cool (or biting, or ironic) modernism in these works, which—conveniently for historians and critics—are scattered throughout his creative lifetime.

Like Rachmaninov, Prokofiev wandered the world as an artist although, unlike his older peer, he eventually returned to Mother Russia. Melnikov’s volume 2 includes Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, the last work Prokofiev completed before heading west in 1917. Subtitled “From the Old Notebooks,” it is based on music he worked up as a student but left unfinished. More so than in most of Prokofiev’s later music, you can hear Romantic mystery, sense an old, dark Russian spirit here. Many Prokofiev scholars link this sonata with his 1918 Skazki staroy babushki (“Tales of an Old Grandmother”), and they’re onto something:

Between 1939 and 1944, Prokofiev—now back in Russia for good—wrote three great piano sonatas, Nos. 6, 7, and 8. Collectively known as the “War Sonatas,” they’re popular with performers and audiences alike. Some indication of their appeal can be seen in Melnikov’s decision to include two in his first volume and the remaining one in his second. (The composer worked simultaneously on all three, actually finishing No. 6 last.) Spurred on by the chaos and privations of the time, Prokofiev reverted to the violent modernism of his earlier (i.e., 1920s!) music.


You can get a good sense of the “War Sonatas” via Melnikov’s rendition of Sonata No. 6, above. Begin with the first movement’s edgy, curdled first theme and then its (momentarily) tranquil second theme. An increasingly frenzied development gets underway after 2:45, building steadily to a furious climax, after which (at 5:45) the original themes return.

At 7:26 the second movement begins, with clipped phrasing, clever harmonic dodges, and a minimalist, staccato accompaniment; an interlude emerges at 9:40, smoky with mystery and menace, quickly swept away. The third movement (11:43), marked Tempo di valzer lentissimo, mixes woozy nostalgia with bursts of grandiosity. A concluding Vivace (18:52), fast and often furious, nevertheless gives the impression of enormous energies held in check; it neatly recalls motives from earlier movements. You may want to check out Richter’s 1956 Prague recital for a useful comparison.

I like Melnikov’s approach very much. He plays with fire and precision, balancing the disparate elements of this music better than others have done, and he’s well-recorded. I’m looking forward to vol. 3, which will presumably include Sonatas 3 and 5.

Speaking of skazki, I’d never heard the word before I reviewed Hamish Milne’s terrific Medtner recordings. Now comes Norwegian Gunnar Sama, who’s cherry-picked eighteen Medtner miniatures for a recital on 2L, the high-res, immersive-sound label so ably steered by Morten Lindberg. The result should have been a DXD tour-de-force for Sama. But I may be getting ahead of myself. First we should introduce Nicolay Medtner. A year older than Prokofiev, he stood worlds apart artistically. Milne writes:

A proud and unbending man, Medtner held fast throughout his life to artistic beliefs which were hopelessly at odds with prevailing currents. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss were just a few of his great contemporaries towards whom he expressed scorn bordering on disgust. . . . Today, as we standing at a lengthening distance from these disputes, Medtner himself stands as an almost heroically independent spirit.

As for skazki, it translates as “tales.” But not fairy tales, really. And not “legends” or flights of fantasy, regardless of the record jacket art. As Boris Asafyev (who somehow managed a lifelong friendship with Prokofiev) put it, these short works “are tales about personal experience, about the conflicts of a man’s inner life.” They are not markedly different in style from the Préludes of Rachmaninoff, Medtner’s lifelong friend.

I can do no more than wholeheartedly recommend Hamish Milnes’s two monumental Medtner albums, Skazki and Arabesques, Dithyrambs, Elegies. Here are two excerpts from my own favorites, the first a skazki, the second a dithyramb (which for Medtner apparently connoted solemn ceremony).

As for Sama’s recital, it counts—for me, anyway—as one of 2L’s very few swing-and-a-misses. In this case, the venue (the cavernous Sofienberg Church), the instrument (a new C. Bechstein D282), and the engineering all seem to have worked against the elusive magic of this music. (I preferred the stereo mix, which minimized the room’s “contribution.”) Consider downloading Milne, who even at Redbook resolution speaks more eloquently on this music’s behalf.

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