Americans have had a long love affair with the music of Russia, particularly that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, especially, are guaranteed box office today as they have been for decades.
But there are other, less well-known Russian composers whose work, while perhaps not as immediate as those two composers, offer rewarding listening experiences in their own right. One of those is the pianist and composer Nikolai Medtner, whose 14 piano sonatas and three concertos have received more attention in recent years as pianists have delved deeper into the more obscure reaches of the repertoire.
The young Russian-born pianist Alexandra (Sasha) Kasman, a recent graduate of the University of Alabama now pursuing graduate study at Juilliard, ended her recital April 21 at the Boca Steinway Gallery with the first Medtner sonata, written in 1902 when, as Kasman noted, he was her age (22). The sonata (in F minor, Op. 5) is a piece steeped in Chopin, as is so much Russian piano music of this period, though others hear more Brahms and Schumann.
Its first movement begins with an expectant motif that unfolds into a sweeping canvas of surging scales and bravura color that also leaves space for a modestly scaled but memorable theme that recurs throughout the movement. The second is a moody minor-key march that moves via pedal tone and no pause into the third, a thickly textured Largo that quickly turns to the grandiose. Another pedal tone leads into the finale, a fleet movement with a bustling forward motion and a crisp fugato toward the end before transitioning to an exultant F major coda.
This is music of a splendid craftsman who has internalized the music of Chopin in a deep way, and not as obviously as another Chopin acolyte and Medtner contemporary, Alexander Scriabin. It is highly suggestive of Rachmaninov but without the slightly elder composer’s distinctive melodic profile, which inhibits its appeal somewhat. But Medtner is a rewarding composer, and well worth seeking out.
There is little question about Kasman’s affection for Medtner; she played this sonata with total commitment and absorption. Her technique was deep and impressive, and her ability to unify the whole work was commendable. She managed the first movement’s surging Romanticism with power, and she chose a good swift tempo for the second-movement march. The third was less persuasive primarily because the music starts big and stays there, not giving the performer that much leeway, but the finale was well-done, with good fugal playing and a big commanding sound.
Kasman’s dedication to Medtner – also a favorite of her father, the 1997 Cliburn silver medalist Yakov Kasman – will bring plentiful dividends for her down the road as she explores how best to make this music communicate. This performance sounded finished and thoroughly worked out, but shy of a definitive interpretation. Some of the sections of this work need much more contrast to make the most of the piece, and some more deliberate setting up of secondary themes. But all that will come; this was an exciting, vigorous reading of a fine sonata.
The first half of Kasman’s recital opened with an early Mozart sonata, No. 2 in F (K. 280), written in Munich when the composer was just 19. It’s a bubbly piece with a pre-Romantic slow movement, and Kasman played it with confidence and clarity. She brought strong feeling to the slow movement, which is something of an early cousin to the minor-key siciliano of the A major concerto (K. 488).
In both the outer movements, her technique was very solid, which is so critical for this music, whose textures are so clear and so exposed. What was missing here was more contrast: In the secondary theme of the first movement, for instance, and in the finale, a stronger involvement with its Haydnesque wit and high spirits.
The other piece on the program was a formidable one, the Tombeau de Couperin of Ravel. This great World War I-era masterwork is much better-known these days as an orchestral piece, but it’s a hugely important piece in its original piano dress. Kasman can certainly play the Tombeau: She has this tremendously difficult piece in her fingers and rendered it with power and vividness, especially in the last pages of the Toccata, and her Fugue was sharply etched.
Again, the music could have used more interpretive detail: The Minuet needed more tenderness, and its Musette trio section needed a completely different color. The Forlane was gentle and quirky, but it was too far from its dance roots to make the best impact; listeners need to feel the physical movement the music portrays.
Kasman is very young yet and her readings of these works will deepen with time. But she is a strong player with a special interest in hidden corners of the repertoire, and that will help her stand out in a crowded, competitive field.