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
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.