The great Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 33, was composed by Nikolai Medtner during World War I. The commotion of that surly time seemed to inspirit him to his most dramatic composition. The initial sketches of the Concerto are dated the beginning of 1915. “He literally worked all the day long with an unusual vengeance; he did not eat or drink till night,” a friend of his said. In the summer the score was ready, however Medtner arranged his Concerto for two years since he did not get accustomed to compose for orchestra.
For the first time the Concerto was performed with the author as a soloist and the orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky’s baton in Moscow on May 12, 1918. The composition was a success, and critics noted that “the audience was brought to their feet”. However, the score was not published for three years because of the civil war. The composer liked his Concerto very much and zestfully included it in programs of his tours over the USA, England and Poland.
Being an outstanding pianist, in his Piano Concerto Medtner gave the leading part to a soloist. “The orchestra is like a chorus in a tragedy, and the piano is like a teller,” he wrote. Though the composition is written in one act – and that is a continued West romantic tradition, in particular, of Franz Liszt – but the musical intonations are true Russian. Researchers find affinity between Medtner and Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Kalinin, and Medtner’s closest friend, Sergei Rachmaninoff. The development of the First Concerto music is conceptualized in doleful, mutinous, dramatic images which go through the sustained struggle to the triumph of light.
The Symphonic Dances (1940) was Rachmaninoff’s last major work, composed once he had emigrated to America and three years after his Third Symphony. Initially the work had a somewhat different title – Fantastic Dances – and its three sections were entitled Noon, Twilight and Midnight. In the final version Rachmaninoff changed the titles and abandoned any programme names.
There is much that points to the fact that Symphonic Dances was the composer’s final work. Rachmaninoff was as if looking back, summing up the results of his own creative life. At the close of the first section (set to bell chimes) one can hear the there of the first section of the first movement of the First Symphony which had been defamed at the premiere but which the composer later would not allow to be performed. In the third section one can hear the theme Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”, a medieval Catholic chorale about the Day of Judgement), which can be found in many of Rachmaninoff’s works as an idée fixe and which reaches its climax here. And at the very end the violas and the snare drum reach the culmination with the slightly modified theme of Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost from Blessed Art Thou, O Lord, the ninth part of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, composed in 1915. From the title it follows that there could be a ballet version of the work. In actual fact, Rachmaninoff corresponded with the choreographer Michel Fokine, discussing the possibility of creating a stage version of his final work. Fokine’s death in 1942, however, prevented the idea from ever coming to fruition.