MEDTNER plays MEDTNER: Volume 1 = Eight Fairy Tales; Three Novellas, Op. 17; Festive Dance, Op. 38, No. 3; Spring, Op. 39, No. 3; Morning Song, Op. 39, No. 4; Tragic Sonata, Op. 39, No. 5; Joyful Dance, Op. 40, No. 4 – Nikolai Medtner, piano – Melodiya MEL CD 10 02200, 69:31 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
“There is hardly another composer who takes a more solitary place in the family of Russian musicians,” wrote of Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) contemporary and music critic Vyacheslav Karatygin. Medtner’s style seems an amalgam of Russian folklore, German harmony, Scriabin and Rachmaninov textures, and a gloomy, melodic romanticism that echoes Brahms, in a more distinctive modal form. This first Melodiya volume of Medtner’s recordings at the keyboard, 1930-1947, will not recommend itself on the virtues of its sonics, rather typically hollow and distant in the keyboard sound, sometimes accompanied by an obvious ping in the high registers of the instrument. [About what is to be expected of Soviet recordings that old, though Pristine Audio could probably do better with them…Ed.] But the “authenticity” of the performances bespeaks a musician with a solid, bravura technique and distinct ideas on how his music should project.
One of the most compelling pieces, his Improvisation No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31, sums up much of his eclectic style: the second longest piece offered – after the extended Sonate tragique, Op. 39, No. 5 – the piece moves from aria and recitative into a series of high-spun staccato figures and demonic arabesques that often ring plastically then more stridently. A hybrid chorale-march emerges whose bass and variation gestures could easily be attributed to Liszt. The “epilogue,” as such, seems pure Schumann. The album opens with eight “Fairy Tales,” Opp. 8, 20, 34, and 51, some of which appeared on the Appian label some years ago. Like Schumann’s maerchen, these skazki move militantly or lyrically, or some combination thereof. The Op. 20, No. 1 embraces an athletic nostalgia worthy of Rachmaninov. The expansive D Minor, Op. 51, No. 1 moves briskly in a manner that crosses Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, maybe touched by French wit. The A Minor, Op. 34, No. 3 bears the subtitle L’Esprit de la foret, but its evocation of the woods remains rather dark and more percussively brilliant in an etude style than any moment of pantheism would suggest.
More French “impressions” emerge in the Trois Nouvelles,” Op. 17, of which No. 1 in G Major is entitled “Daphnis et Chloe.” It sounds like a cross of Faure and modal Grieg. The D Minor No. 2 almost quotes Rachmaninov’s G Minor Prelude in rhythm and accent until its texture shifts to the upper register, which then “borrows” from a Chopin polonaise and Rachmaninov’s Suite, Op. 5. Medtner then explores diverse pieces from his three books of Melodies oublieees, Opp. 38-40, with their Lisztian allusions. The Danse de fete, Op. 38, No. 3 plays like a demanding etude in rapid, polyphonic, wide stretches and studied, often galloping, broken-figure harmony. The Danse de joie, Op. 40, No. 4 presents a study in polyrhythm and three-hand effects.
The longest sequence derives from Op. 39, from which Medtner selects No. 3 Printemps, No. 4 Chanson du matin, and No. 5 Sonata tragique. That Printemps could be attributed to Debussy remains doubtless, a skillful combination of arabesque and nocturne. The spirit of Faure inhabits the genuinely lyric “Morning Song,” one of Medtner’s more “plain-spoken” outpourings, despite its polyphony and swagger in the manner of Chabrier. The so-called “Tragic Sonata” in one movement occasionally received a performance from Rachmaninov. Beethoven and Chopin seem to have influenced its martial, punishingly syncopated moments. The music strikes us more as a ballade more than a sonata, unless this “form” has made concessions to Scriabin. After a brief cadenza, the music’s polyphony and militant spirit revive, rather fervently as well strictly. Heinrich Neuhaus characterized Medtner’s playing as “somewhat academic in the highest and best sense of the word. . .[containing] not a shade of idle talk and posing.”