The second volume of the solo piano recordings of Medtner
advances from the unearthed riches of Volume One’s unpublished Columbias
to the HMV album of 1936 with the addition of the 1946 Improvisation
and one dramatic rarity of its own – the First Violin Sonata, previously
unreleased on 78. The qualities I noted as being characteristic of Medtner’s
playing in 1930/31 are equally present here. He remade many, though
not all, of the early discs and we can hear how little his interpretations
differed, If there are minor changes he is, not unsurprisingly, marginally
slower in 1936, but the differences are really minimal, matters of seconds.
Bryan Crimp notes that Medtner’s reappearance in the studios after the
War was only possible because of the intervention of Medtner’s friend
and colleague, Benno Moiseiwitsch, and slightly later the Maharajah
of Mysore whose sponsorship of the Society Albums is well known.
The 1936 HMVs reveal his beautifully balanced, scaled
and equalized playing. He brings out the middle voices in the Germanic
Novelle – his conveyance of mood and cogent linkage of the slow and
faster sections one of great skill. We can understand in his playing
of this piece something of Medtner’s belief in the dictum that whilst
there are many ways of playing a piece "but always one that is
best." Here his feeling for dramatic intensity is fused with a
notable sense of narrative within a short space of time. The Op 20/2
Märchen is heavy-footed, with its sinuous bass line and plenty
of eruptive drama. Medtner manages to infuse these miniatures with a
sense of incident far beyond their seemingly circumscribed form and
his pianism is adept at balancing both architectural and tonal needs.
In his hands the Märchen in particular are constantly fluid and
in motion, endlessly alive. Op 51/2 for instance is animated by his
pearl bejewelled treble which glitters in a three and a half minute
tone poem of lyrical simplicity. In contrast Medtner’s sinew, and his
Germanic influences as well as his still robust technique are all on
show in the Danza Festiva – triumphant, celebratory, full of cascading
verve. He conjures up the sprite world in the Wood Goblin Märchen,
Op 34/3 and the tragic depth of the Arabesque with equal aplomb. His
balanced chords and articulation in the Danza jubilosa, allied to his
controlled and controlling animation, are infectious. That consistency,
so famously associated with him, is perhaps best exemplified by the
Op 51/3 Märchen, which differs not at all from the versions included
in Volume 1. Medtner has a formidable variety of qualities, from the
lilting to the vigorous, the exultant to the Schumannesquely crepuscular,
the introspective to the narratively complex.
The exciting news about the First Violin Sonata is
that this is its first commercial appearance. This had previously received
limited circulation as it was issued as part of the collector Thomas
L Clear’s self-produced, semi-private series of LPs and is of itself
something of a rarity. Copies of the 78s were supplied to APR by Donald
Manildi and Barrie Martyn and Bryan Crimp has utilised some skilful
noise reduction to limit the surface noise but managed also to retain
frequency fidelity and not to suppress treble. Medtner’s sonata partner
is fellow Russian, Cecilia Hansen, a pupil of Leopold Auer born in 1897
and who lived to a venerable old age, dying in London at ninety-two.
She made very few recordings – no more than ten 78 sides for Victor
in the 1920s and the Medtner is both her most extended – indeed her
only extended - recording and also the highlight of her discography.
She was fifty when she and Medtner recorded the Sonata, her initial
success long since behind her, but her technique is robust and intact
and her musical intelligence obvious. With its evocative lyricism and
delicious textual profile this is an ingenuous and beautiful work. Hansen
is well equalized through the scale, with a very quick and gorgeous,
though prominent, slide at 2’25 in the first movement and her lyric
intensity in the Danza is delightful. Medtner’s off-beat accents are
properly propulsive; her portamentos toward the end are pervasive but
precise, though she can sometimes sound rather starved in the E string.
Medtner is admirably nimble and their synchronicity is excellent, Of
the known survivals of this set all are take one. Hansen does have a
small tone, feminine, but inclined rather more than, say, her fellow
Auer pupil Efrem Zimbalist to convey its lyrical implications. And she
is well attuned to the Sonata’s concluding Ditirambo. It’s difficult
to balance the two instruments here but Medtner is chordally solicitous,
though maybe very slightly overbalancing Hansen’s accompanying figuration
later on. But they have enviable rhythmic rapport, reaching the conclusion
of the sonata with a triumphant understanding of its play of the active
and the passive.
As with the first volume of this series the biographical
and recording essays are by Barrie Martyn and are generic to the series
and yield much of interest. Bryan Crimp’s note outlines matters discographic.
I think the presence of the Violin Sonata makes this pretty much a mandatory
purchase but the 1936 set, newly transferred and attractively, marks
out this series as one of increasing importance.