> Complete solo piano recordings played by Nicolai Medtner Volume 1 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Nicolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Complete solo piano recordings played by Nicolai Medtner Volume 1
Nicolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)

Märchen (Skazka/Fairy Tales)
Op 14/2
Op 8/1
Op 20/2
Op 51/3
Op 51/5
Op 20/1
Op 26/3
Op 26/3
Op 26/2
Op 51/2
Hymn in praise of toil op 49/1
Danza jubilosa Op 40/4
Danza festiva Op 38/3
Canzona matinata Op 39/4
Novelle Op 17/1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sonata No 23 Op 57 Appassionata
Nicolai Medtner, piano
Recorded London 1930-31 (Medtner) and 1946 (Beethoven)
APR 5546 [75’42]

Medtner’s status as one of the great performer-composers is significantly lower than that of his colleague and friend Rachmaninov. That this should be so is in part due to the "Medtner Problem" – a curious unwillingness to engage with the nature of his compositions and, as regards performance, Medtner’s own extreme diffidence as a soloist. He frequently gave recitals of his own music but very few of other composers’ – and increasingly Beethoven came to occupy the central place in his repertoire that had once embraced Balakirev’s Islamey, Liszt, Schumann’s Toccata and the Tchaikovsky B minor, Chopin E minor and Rubinstein’s E flat Concertos.

The bulk of Medtner’s published discography dates from 1936 and 1946/7. True he’d made Piano rolls, for Welte-Mignon in 1922 and for Duo-Art in New York in 1925, but Columbia had obviously become interested in him because in 1928 he came to their London studios whilst on tour to make three test records following which, during 1930/31, he came back to record his own compositions – including three of his songs. None were ever issued. The recently merged Columbia and HMV, forming EMI, remade most, but not all, of them in 1936 and issued them under the aegis of HMV. In 1946/47 he again underwent a fairly comprehensive recording schedule committing the Concertos, amongst much else, to records. These latter were sponsored by the Maharajah of Mysore - a series concluded in 1950, the year before Medtner’s death, with recordings of the songs with Elizabeth Schwartkopf. Along the way Medtner added substantially to his discography – the Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata No 1 (both unissued at the time), two of the piano sonatas, the Sonata-Vocalise, shorter piano pieces and some songs with Slobodskaya and Tatiana Makushina, a favoured soprano with whom he’d given his first London recital in 1928.

Medtner maintained that "There may be different ways of playing a piece but always one that is the best." The consistency between sessions a few days apart is, perhaps, unexceptionable – but Medtner’s consistency over a span of seventeen years is testament to his belief in the almost spiritual rightness of the act of interpretation. He gave the German name Märchen to his cycle Skazka; in English, Fairy Tales. They possess a profound level of emotional engagement which belies the rather feyly neutral English title – and constitutes one of the most impressive piano cycles in twentieth century piano composition. Medtner’s pianism in these previously unissued 1930-31 discs is highly personalised. He possesses a rhythmic mastery, a colouristic palette, that gives tremendous life to the miniatures. There’s nothing obviously cerebral or withdrawn about his playing but neither is it presumptuously romanticised. Lyric parameters are invariably maintained, nuance and scale always observed. There are so many felicities in his playing it’s difficult to know where to start. Some delicious left hand runs inform op 14/2, its contrapuntalism alive and absorbed as if into the bloodstream. He can be thunderous too, as in op 20/2 but never so much as to overbalance either texture or form. And equally his employment of tempo rubato, exemplified in op 51/3, results in sensitively shaped inexorable logic. Op 20/1 is especially attractive with its amplitude and waves of torrential romanticism, never seeming for a moment spurious or over inflated. His pianism retains at all times a passionate fixity within which his compositions flourish all the more. There is some dizzying passagework in op 26/2, more remarkable runs and perfectly weighted and balanced chords in the Danza jubilosa. The joyous Danza festiva is again combustible and fantastically virtuosic. We can hear throughout these discs that Columbia experimented with different electrical systems with different recording levels and acoustics as a result. However he was recorded Medtner’s affecting lyricism and triumphant weight of touch are impossible to miss.

His beloved Beethoven is represented by the 1946 recording of the Appassionata. There is a grim certainty to his playing of the Allegro assai – defiant, unselfpitying. The graded dynamics of the slow movement are profoundly inward whereas the finale boasts a steadily accumulating sense of inevitability. Structural sagacity makes this a commanding and compelling experience.

APR’s documentation is superb in every way. The transfers, of copies many of which are now owned by Marc-André Hamelin, have been effected with the highest skill. Only a few noise-reduced thumps intrude and then only briefly. We can hear the differences between the variously dated sessions - distance, microphone placements - but their aural integrity has been kept intact. In short this is an issue of the highest conceivable importance.

Jonathan Woolf

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