The shadow cast over Russian Late Romantic music by the somber, larger-than-life figure of Rachmaninoff is difficult to escape. Not only for audiences –how many other Russian Late Romantics can you name besides Rachmaninoff? – but also for those Russian composers unlucky enough to be born around the same time as the 6’3” composer who also just happened to be one of the very greatest of all pianists.
Consider the life and work of composer Nikolai Medtner, whose “Two Canzonas with Two Danzas for Violin and Piano, Op. 43” is being performed on Sunday by Le Salon de Musques at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Mere mentions of his name and career almost invariably invokes comparisons with his older contemporary. It also didn’t help that both composers composed extensively for the piano; in the case of Medtner, utilizing the instrument in every score he penned.
“[Comparing him] with Rachmaninoff is revealing,” said musicologist Julius Reder Carlson, who introduces the program at each Le Salon concert. “At first glance these two composers – both of whom were exceptional piano virtuosi and both of whom wrote piano works that can be described as ‘Late Romantic’ – seem quite similar. And yet Rachmaninoff is now a household name. Medtner is not.”
Carlson lays part of the blame for the composer’s relative obscurity on Medtner’s refusal to embrace a dual career as pianist; an instrument that, as a clutch of CD reissues eloquently testify, he was a consummate master of. Instead the composer lived a quieter life, preferring to focus on composing and teaching.
“Rachmaninoff embraced the role of piano virtuoso and, in so doing, introduced his music to audiences around the world,” he said.
Another reason for Medtner’s limited renown, Carlson added, was the inability of his music to stand out in the crowded field of Late Romantic music. Both composers mined the same vein of rich, darkly Romantic music.
“While both [Medtner and Rachmaninoff] wrote anachronistic music, Rachmaninoff was more successful in developing an individual style than Medtner, and thus is more recognizable to listeners,” said Carlson. “However, I don’t think that being conservative or derivative is necessarily a bad thing in music, or art in general for that matter.”
Despite these obstacles, Medtner commands a strong underground following mostly with pianophiles and, though his music is rarely performed in public, recordings of his solo piano works appear with regularity.
“Pianists love playing Medtner,” he said, “and there’s good reason for that: he wrote amazing music for the piano.”
Le Salon de Musiques’ program on Sunday, Feb. 9 – which will be played by musicians Movses Pogossian (violin), John Walz (cello) and Mona Golabek (piano) – will also include the “Prélude and Danse Orientale, Op. 2” and “Élegie, Op. 4” by Rachmaninoff and the “Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 32” by Anton Arensky. The concert will take place on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and begins at 4 p.m. To obtain tickets and for more information, go online to www.lesalondemusiques.com/index.asp, or call (310) 498-0257. You may also email firstname.lastname@example.org.