Few introductions of a piano concerto have captivated my attention as quickly as Nikolai Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in E minor, Op. 60. Tension, solemnity, grace – it’s all there. Medtner wrote it between 1940 and 1943, while he moved from London to Birmingham and from Birmingham to the countryside to escape the bombing campaign of the German Luftwaffe. He completed it upon his return to London, a city devastated, but not vanquished.
The composer had left the Soviet Union well after the Bolshevik Revolution, toured the United States and moved to the United Kingdom in 1936. At the outbreak of the war, his German publisher stopped paying royalties, and he had to flee from town to town – a permanent refugee. His bad health and his material poverty did not help things, but none of these hardships prevented him from composing. The piano concerto had been commissioned by the pianist Benno Moisewitch and was inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Rusalka”. It was Medtner’s last major work. He died in 1951.
The piece is written in a single movement with three sections, the second one being only two minutes long. Medtner apparently never liked writing for the orchestra, he rather championed piano solo works, songs and chamber works. Lermontov’s poem is directly reflected in the first section as Medtner himself explained: Swimming in a lake in the moonlight, [the nymph] Rusalka praises life in the water. A knight arrives, but despite Rusalka’s caresses, he remains cold-hearted and silent. In the last section Medtner develops the story: The knight symbolizes the human spirit, numbed by life on earth, but gradually awakening, and sings a hymn to praise his triumph over temptation and to celebrate his redemption.
Perhaps the undefeated spirit of the Londoners and the triumph of solidarity in times of war over selfishness played a part in the nascence of this concerto. It is not only a beautiful and underrated piece of music, but also a useful reminder of the true values of a society.
Medtner’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in E minor has been recorded by Yevgeny Sudbin and the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton.
© Charles Thibo