Diary of a Medtner Piano Quintet

Day 1. First reading. Apparently the charming, devastatingly handsome pianist of the group (a certain Jeremy M. Denk, Esq.) is a wee grumpy. There is some disagreement about tempo, with the group dividing more or less strings vs. piano (how unusual!), which devolves further and further into animosity. When asked his opinion of a passage just played, Mr. Denk opines: “unbearably tedious.” Mr. Isserlis thinks this is “not exactly encouraging.”

Day 2. On to the third movement. Mr. Denk is all sweetness and light, but no one seems to believe in his smiles, suspecting irony. (Perhaps correct?) Three hours into the rehearsal, we seem still to be in the development section, though it is hard to tell. Fugatos are waddling everywhere like stilted Russian chickens, in horrendous keys like G# minor with gobs of double sharps.  We dash madly for the coda, seeking fulfillment and completion. Each tempo marking seems to be paradoxical in a different way, and we perversely enjoy explaining to ourselves things such as “sempre piu a tempo”!

For the first time, the name Celine Dion is invoked to explain the ecstatic arrival point of the first movement.

Day 3. It is theorized that Mr. Denk was “jetlagged” on Day 1, in an attempt to explain his ongoing delightful demeanor. (Mr. Isserlis makes a scoffing comparison: “I guess Hitler was jetlagged.”) It is a veritable virtuoso exercise in charm, despite a return to the controversial first movement and its tempo marking of 46 to the half note, which drives the pianist half out of his mind. (The pianist begins to suspect he may be in the clutches of madmen:  these people not only want to play the Medtner Quintet, but they want it to last as long as possible.)  The Celine Dion moment is mounted at a kind of Messiaen-on-quaaludes pace, and finally the string players believe they have reached too sluggish a world; the pianist feels vindicated, and is allowed to broach a more flowing tempo. He oozes ahead, emotes.

Composers: don’t write hymns or chorales any more! Please! After the rehearsal, the second violinist, a certain Mr. Francis, and Mr. Denk are so inspired and feel so deeply, emotionally committed to the score that they begin to invent words for the hymn theme of the last movement.

medtnerhymn.jpgCornish ale helps to inspire certain turns of phrase. These words cannot be printed here, for copyright reasons. I can only say that the recurring, tonic-centered phraseology suggested certain recurring, urgent sensual implorings.

Day 4. We attempt to take in the whole work. The last movement needs to be addressed yet again, and its manifold themes gathered within the sausage casing (if you will) of a pulse, an architectural prophylactic.

Again, Mr. Francis and Mr. Denk are magnificently inspired after the rehearsal; they feel the need to fulfill this inspiration by finding expressive anagrams for the name Nicolai Medtner. Various combinations “[blank] enema” fail miserably, and this tragic impossibility is confirmed by computer. The computer however comes up with:

Amelodic Intern

Indelicate Norm

Medicinal Tenor

All of this is part of the extremely serious rehearsal procedure here at IMS Prussia Cove. (“Jeremy Denk” is also tried, and becomes Jerk My Need.)

We play through the last movement entirely without stopping. The work is therefore scheduled for performance (kidding!).  Stay tuned, there will be updates here at Think Denk!!! If you are anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, I think you should try your darndest to come to tonight’s performance in Camborne, Cornwall, England.  The program:

Golijov:  Clarinet Quintet (Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind)

Schubert:  Winterreise, Part 2 (arr. for tenor and string quartet?!?)

Medtner:  Piano Quintet

This program will likely never be heard again, and survivors will be given cream tea, warm blankets, and a consolatory hug.  There is, by the way, a pub right next door to the venue; I’m just saying.

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  1. Posted September 16, 2007 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    Who programs Medtner these days? Why?
    Wikipedia (if it is to be believed) says the Quintet was his final work (1949) and a major summing up of his creative life.

    That’s sad. Very sad.

    But the English do go in for this sort of thing. Maybe it’s the ale.

    Can’t wait to hear how it turns out. The warm blankets and consolatory hug, I mean.


  2. Posted September 16, 2007 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Wish I could have been there, it sounds unnerving and delicious…could you and Mr. Francis please post an audio file of the two of you singing your hymn?

  3. Steven Isserlis
    Posted September 16, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink


    I would like – at the risk of offending Mr Denk, whose initial wrath made the stormy seas outside the window of our rehearsal room seem tame by comparison – to point out that there IS another side to this view of the Medtner Quintet. There are those of us who truly love it: yes, it is on a huge scale, and yes, its spirit is at times naive; but it is also full of glorious melodies (especially touching, perhaps, for those of us who love the music of the Russian Orthodox Church) and it is completely, touchingly and fervently sincere. The form may be experimental, but it works on its own terms. It’s not a piece for cynics – but is that a criticism?

    Hmmm… anyway, your views are up for all to see. Fie,fie, Jeremy: no wonder you used to look up with that thoroughly guilty beagle-who-just-broke-a-valuable-antique expression whenever I came across you typing on your laptop in the office. And to think that – after that first scary rehearsal day – I made you a cup of best Cornish coffee every morning, just to sweeten your mood. Alas…

    Oh well – perhaps it’s just extended jetlag. One piece of evidence would seem to point that way: you refer to dubious lyric-composing sessions with ‘the second violinist, a certain Mr Francis’. Hmmm….well, I’d always thought that that rather large instrument that Mr Francis was playing was normally referred to as a ‘viola’. Curious. Maybe it’s just a matter of pronunciation.

    Anyway – you have to admit that there were those in the concert who were moved. And even you expressed some enthusiasm at the end of the concert. So I’m delighted to invite you to go to http://www.medtner.com, the home of the International Medtner Foundation. Perhaps you’re like a Graham Greene character, who fights and struggles noisily and angrily against the Catholic church, only to be received into it at the end of the book. (Not that you’d ever be noisy or angry, needless to say…)

    Your affectionate – if gently reproachful – cellist/coffe-maker/Russian music proselytiser Steven J Isserlis, esq

  4. elisa
    Posted September 17, 2007 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I absolutely love this entry. Always wanted to know what musicians do when they do not agree about the interpretation.
    Very funny writing.
    What about cream tea and consolatory hug for you, Jeremy?

    PS Did you ever try Medtner’s “Sonata reminiscenza”? Not so bad…

  5. Posted September 17, 2007 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Now that you have this one cracked, why don’t you try what may be a forgotten masterpiece, the piano quintet by Ignaz Friedman? (Actually not totally kidding…)

    I have tried to love Medtner and failed (so far). I read once that you needed the score to appreciate him. A cruel comment but perhaps true. That hymn theme doesn’t give much love back, huh?…those two “E’s” at the end are priceless.

  6. Posted August 17, 2008 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    The Piano Quintet is not the easiest introduction to Medtner. Medtner enthusiasts are divided as to whether it’s one of his best works. The Fairy Tales, violin music and songs make for easier listening. I hope to play the quintet myself some day, preferably with a more sympathetic group of musicians!

    A question for Steven Isserlis, if you’re reading this. You gave the UK premiere of an arrangement of a Medtner Fairy Tale for piano trio earlier this year. Presumably this was Medtner’s 1923 arrangement of the Op 9 no 2. I’ve never been able to get the score — I’d assumed it only exists in manuscript. Can you tell me your source? A scan would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Jakub Eisenbruk
    Posted August 7, 2010 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    WOW. Amazing. What a bunch of tards. Medtner is one of the best 20th century composers. Aside from the fact that his music, just as Brahms’ or Bach’s, demonstrates that musical development need not take away beauty from music, a composer such as Sorabji called his Op. 25 No. 2 “the greatest sonata of modern times.” Richter, from what I read, considered him a very good composer and Gilels dared to play his music in a time when it was completely out of fashion. Earl Wild, Horowitz, Kissin and other pianists have also played Medtner. Marc-André Hamelin called his Op. 53 No. 2 “the most concentrated 15 minutes of music one could ever hope to listen to or play.” And in spite of this, a stupid asshole comes here and says that his “Sonata Reminiscenza”, a piece recorded by a famous pianist such as Gilels, is “not so bad.” Give me a break. Btw, Oistrakh recorded his 3rd Violin Sonata, but who cares, you guys are obviously much smarter 😎

  8. Jakub Eisenbruk
    Posted August 7, 2010 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    I could have mentioned that Rachmaninoff considered him the best living composer and said he didn’t publish anything that he should be ashamed of, but who cares.

  9. Nate BH
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    A search on your blog for “Mednter” yeilds rare fruit, apparently, as does “Brendan’s On-Line Anagram Generator,” which suggests

    Doric Lint Enema

    Or, there are several exciting possibilities if you spell Nikolai with a “K.”

    Kid Lit Nor Enema (A fragment of a lost, 11th commandment?)
    Enema Lord, I Knit (A wrathful God that can only be appeased with sacrificial sweaters)
    Drink, Toil, Enema (Story of my life?? Let’s hope not.)

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