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Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951)
Three Arabesques Op. 7 (1904) [11.29]
Two Fairy Tales Op. 8 (1905) [9.41]
Romantic Sketches for the Young Op. 54 (1932) [27.22]
Second Improvisation (in the form of variations) Op. 47 (1926) [29.25]
Geoffrey Tozer, piano
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 10-11 April 2002.
The Piano Works of Nikolai Medtner - Volume 8
CHANDOS CHAN 10266 [78:06]

 

I must confess that I am always a little disappointed with the music of Nikolai Medtner, and much more to the point I am not really sure why this is the case. I suppose part of the reason goes to an initial expectation that in this composer’s music we had a pendant to the likes of Scriabin or Rachmaninov. I imagined that here was a corpus of romantic music that was just waiting to be indulged in or even luxuriated in.

Gerald Abraham sums up what the problem is. He points out that Medtner is the one composer whose works differ so considerably from the popular conception of Russian music. Abraham isolates rhythmic excitement, brilliant harmonic and instrumental colour, rather obvious but nonetheless delightful melodies which are noted for their simplicity and clarity as being the commonly held conception of Russian style. However, Medtner, he describes as having an austere as opposed to flamboyant romanticism, and having considerable emotional depth instead of wearing his heart on his sleeve. And finally the building bricks of Medtner’s music make use of a number of highly crafted compositional devices including complex harmonies and considerable use of polyphonic textures. So Medtner’s music is not like Rachmaninov. It is not conceived in a popular style. It is not easy to understand at a first hearing and it is not the kind of music that becomes a Classic FM potboiler.

The Three Arabesques Op. 7 were composed in 1904. The first is subtitled ‘Idyll’ whilst the last two are noted as ‘Tragedy Fragments.’ Now this is interesting as the definition of arabesque is ‘florid (i.e. decorated) figure or composition; [the] name means 'Arabic decoration'; a male ballet position.’ Now we can discount the latter definition. However to me the title 'arabesque' suggests something perhaps pastoral, ephemeral or perhaps will o’ the wisp. Not so with this set of three connected pieces. The first conforms to type, opening in a ‘dreamy’ manner. However the second slowly descends into something much more sinister and even violent. In 1904 the Russians had begun the disastrous war against Japan and this had been followed by waves of unrest at home. It is perhaps helpful to see these pieces as the composer’s response to these unsettled times. It is very much a case of ‘the Dream is Over’. The final piece is extremely attractive in a strange way. There is much aggression, but every so often an uplifting theme struggles desperately to be free.

A brief look at the CD catalogue will reveal a number of Medtner’s works that carry the title ‘Fairy Tales’. Now this is perhaps an unfortunate translation of a Russian word – ‘Skazka’. It is probably better rendered as ‘tale’ or ‘legend’ without the ‘fairy.’ So here we are not considering stories derived from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen but with a much more mundane, more immediate expression of musical thought. It may have something to do with forests and owls and witches but could refer to ‘doings’ of a less tangible or esoteric nature. Medtner uses the title ‘fairy tale’ in the same manner as Brahms uses Intermezzi or Chopin uses ‘Ballade’. They are perhaps more of a vehicle for the composer’s own lyrical compositions and ‘quasi-narrative’ tone than a pictorial representation of an artistic or literary theme from a story book.

The Two Fairy Tales Op. 8 seem to be related to the Arabesques in so far as they exude a sense of foreboding. The tender moments seem to be outweighed by the drama and tension of troubled times to come. Yet they are effective works that can quite easily be listened to and divorced from their apparently ‘lyrical’ programme.

Medtner was perceived as a difficult composer by both publishers and the public. There was a need for something simple – something the gifted amateur would be able to master. The composer responded with his Romantic Sketches for the Young, Op.54. These consist of eight pieces – presented as four ‘tales’ preceded by a prelude. Now whether these are either easy or suitable for the young is a matter of opinion, but my impression is that they are probably more difficult than to be in the gift of the ‘average’ amateur. However, they make attractive listening and include one of Medtner’s loveliest creations – the prelude to the last ‘Tale’. This prelude is subtitled Hymn. The programme notes allude to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as being somewhere in the background to this work.

The last work on this disc is the also the longest .The Second Improvisation, Op. 47 lasts for nearly half an hour. This work is subtitled – ‘In the form of Variations’ and a quick look at the track list reveals that these variations all have a poetic title. Assuming something is lost in the translation, a typical example would be the third variation which is called Feathered Ones. The ninth is purportedly about Wood Sprites and the fourteenth a Song of the Water Nymph. Now Tozer warns us that these subtitles need to be regarded as poetic rather than literal. This is no Pictures at an Exhibition. Tozer believes that this work is autobiographical and that the titles are metaphors or like the clues of a crossword. He then writes an interesting 500 words of analysis based on this presumption.

Now the work itself can be listened to quite easily by abandoning the programme or hidden subtext. This is an extremely tightly controlled work that on first hearing sounds quite sparse and even astringent. However a second attempt began to reveal hidden depths. So I imagine it is one of those works that gradually imparts its secrets – already my enjoyment has been increased many-fold. My impression is that it could be considered as a candidate for the composer’s masterpiece. It is with this work that my original conception of Medtner’s music as being a mine of romantic music in the high Russian manner begins to become true.

Geoffrey Tozer has done a fine job in almost single-handedly promoting the piano works of Nicolai Medtner. Of course, other pianists including Hamish Milne and Marc-André Hamelin have contributed to the catalogue, but Tozer is the only one who is systematically producing a complete cycle of all the piano works. The collection produced by Chandos runs to eight volumes with the possibility of a few more. I first came across Tozer in his recording of the Alan Rawsthorne piano concertos and heard him as the accompanist in the McEwen violin sonatas. He tends to concentrate on 20th century repertoire, and has included Bartók, Korngold, Gerhard and Ottorino Respighi in his catalogue. I like his style of playing in this CD. One cannot help feeling that he is totally committed to this music. As another reviewer said, it is obviously a labour of love. The excellent programme notes were written by Geoffrey Tozer and once again reflect his enthusiasm for the music of this underrated by quite fascinating composer.

Since listening to this disc I have caught something of the subtlety of Medtner’s writing. I have been able to understand that what I thought was a lack of emotion or warmth is in fact a testament to the complexity and depth of his musical language. There is a huge range of emotion across these pieces and this requires a degree of ‘tuning in’. I am becoming sensitive to the fact that this effort is extremely worthwhile.

A welcome addition to this complex but rewarding composer’s discography. Tozer plays this music with skill, understanding and obvious high regard.

John France



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