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No one who is an admirer of the best of twentieth-century Russian music should have missed this awe-inspiring concert of two works composed by Nikolai Medtner and by the imposing symphonist Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music towers over most written anywhere in the world in the mid-twentieth-century. The North Carolina Symphony, conducted admirably by Grant Llewellyn, Music Director, was quite prepared to bring every nuance of these great compositions to life. The dynamic Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, the soloist and undisputed star of the evening, revealed to the large audience every skill a knowing listener would expect, providing a performance filled with electrifying technical brilliance, especially dark, beautiful legato themes and phrases, dizzyingly rapid and precise scale passages, and a touch varying from the most powerful and commanding hammerstrokes to the lightest, most velvety statements of great romantic themes, when his fingers seemed barely to come in contact with the keyboard.
Everything on this excellent program was a study in musical grandeur, beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1802), composed for the tragedy of the same name written by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. This Overture is a strong musical representation of Coriolan and the dark events in which he is involved. In the key of C minor, it begins with a disturbing theme characterized by a somewhat disjointed rhythm, followed by a lyrical theme which is nonetheless filled with foreboding. The development section and the lengthy coda are expressive explorations of these themes, and the final cadence, quite unlike Beethoven's usual bombastic, elongated conclusions, ends not with a bang but a whimper.
Either of the major Russian works on this program would have been more than worth the price of admission, but the great Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 50, by Nikolai Medtner, a contemporary of Scriabin and Rachmaninov, but quite unfamiliar to most modern lovers of Russian music from early to mid-twentieth century, is especially noteworthy, for it is a many-faceted gem which must not remain unknown. This lengthy concerto shares many of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic approaches to composition that we hear in Medtner's friend Rachmaninov, especially the works for piano and orchestra, as well as the latter's formidable technical grandeur as a pianist.
Medtner's Concerto No. 2 is somewhat like a very rich dessert, with its flamboyant orchestration, many-textured harmonies, abrupt shifts from high orchestral drama and its passion, the sweetness of its unusually beautiful melodies, and its requirement of a prodigious technique by the soloist. From the first note he played, soloist Yevgeny Sudbin, one of the finest pianists of the modern concert stage, showed that he has the requisite skill to perform brilliant passagework and breathtaking, rapid movement from one end of the keyboard to the other; enchant audiences with thematic statements so lightly articulated that they are barely audible and yet completely clear; and execute long, shimmering trills. For example, at the beginning of the work, Sudbin had to play a touch piece, a toccata, which introduces a quite difficult melody, supported by a very disjoint rhythm, and all demanding lots of strength and brilliance. This introductory music contrasts almost immediately with the following lyrical, Romantic melody. After a deliberate development of these themes by soloist and orchestra, plus a march, the pianist begins the recapitulation with a long, seemingly impossible cadenza based on all the preceding themes plus some formidable scale passages and powerfully articulated, forte phrases. This early demonstration of Sudbin's virtuosity is an effective illustration of all the many skills a pianist must have to perform this concerto. Some additional examples of Medtner's compositional skills and Sudbin’s formidable technique are found in my favorite passages: the slow, soft melodies of great beauty which occur in many places in the concerto and which remind one of the nocturnes of Chopin, whose touch and sustained melodies Medtner obviously admired.
Like Sudbin, the North Carolina Symphony offered its audience a polished performance of this work, which seems quite as difficult for orchestras as it is for pianists. The superior ability of conductor Llewellyn and the obvious intense rehearsals which he and his musicians had worked through together prepared all the players for the many sudden shifts in tempo and dynamics, and allowed them to acquire a full understanding and appreciation of Medtner's harmony and subtleties of rhythm.
The second half of the concert was Dmitri Shostakovich's monumental first public work, the Symphony No. 1, Op. 10, which received its first performance in 1926. The playing of this work revealed the North Carolina Symphony at its best. Despite the length of the Medtner concerto and the overly-heated Meymandi Concert Hall, no one's attention strayed in the smallest degree from the dynamic music the orchestra produced. Llewellyn and his players made clear the basic musical characteristics of Shostakovich: the grandeur of his musical thought, the angular melodies, the austere nature of his harmony, and the solos by unexpected people. The composer's tendency to reverse and invert themes in the recapitulations of some movements — for instance, the backwards restatement of the four theme groups in the first movement, and the mirror images of two themes in the last movement — led to some breathless moments among the listeners. The orchestra played these movements quite well and I suspect enjoyed what they supposed to be the audience's reaction to the lack of the natural order of the statement of the themes in each movement. One of the most effective movements in this symphony was the third, with its dirge-like themes which the orchestra played with somber gravity. The concluding measures of the final movement, with its shattering power, brought everyone in the audience to their feet in heart-felt tribute.