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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Forgotten Melodies I Op.38 [39:26]
(No.1 Sonata-Reminiscenza - Allegretto tranquillo [16:04]; No.2 Danza graziosa - Con moto leggiero [2:57]; No.3 Danza festiva - Presto [4:47]; No.4 Canzona fluviala - Allegretto con moto [2:40]; No.5 Danza rustica - Allegro commodo [2:01]; No.6 Canzona serenata - Moderato [4:17]; No.7 Danza silvestra [3:40]; No.8 Alla Reminiscenza - Quasi coda [2:53])
Forgotten Melodies II Op.39 [26:20]
(No.1 Meditazione Introduzione, quasi Cadenza — Meno mosso — Meditamente [4:44]; No.2 Romanza - Meditamente [4:19]; No.3 Primavera - Vivace [3:31]; No.4 Canzona matinata - Allegretto cantando, ma sempre con moto [4:34]; No.5 Sonata tragica - Allegro risoluto [9:00])
Zwei Märchen Op.8 [9:09] (Andantino [3:09]; Allegro [5:52])
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, various dates, 1996, 1997, 1998.
HYPERION CDA67578 [74:57]

Nikolai Medtner is another of those sad cases whose music was largely ignored in his lifetime and is only now coming out of the shadows to become recognized for its brilliance and originality.
He had several misfortunes happen to him. Firstly he was unable to reconcile himself with the Bolshevik regime that led to leaving his homeland, something Russians always find especially heartrending. Then he went to Berlin and Paris, neither of which took his music sufficiently seriously. He ended up in England in 1935 living there until his death in 1951. I remember my parents pointing out the road near Golders Green station where he had his house.
When the war began his income from concerts, lessons and royalties from his publisher in Germany ceased. Then came the first of a series of heart attacks which all but cut short his concert career. He continued recording with help from the seemingly unlikeliest of quarters, The Maharajah of Mysore, whose patronage enabled him to record many of his works for HMV. Even this was blighted by the fact that they were all on 78s at the dawn of the LP era and so they soon fell out of the catalogue. Until recently they were not widely available in any more modern format.
It has therefore largely fallen to the current generation of music-lovers to discover him. Just as a neighbour said to me when I first moved to Yorkshire that he envied me as I had the county to discover anew, we have the privilege to do the same for Medtner’s music and what a revelation it is. I first heard his music about ten years ago; it was like dying and going to piano heaven!
He spent from June 1919 to October 1920 at a friend’s dacha at Bugry, 65 miles south-west of Moscow seeking refuge from the aftermath of war and revolution. It was there that he began assembling the music on this disc from notebooks of ideas he had jotted down over the years. These he had largely forgotten hence the title of the collections “Forgotten Melodies”. Op.38 begins with a sonata, Sonata-Reminiscenza, which is a fabulously constructed musical gem that sets the tone for all that follows. Medtner’s music is economic in the extreme, in much the same way as that of Satie, rich in melody and invention and with gorgeous flowing lines.

For the purposes of this review I have also been listening to the set of Sonatas recorded by Geoffrey Tozer, the Australian pianist (Chandos CHAN 9723(4)). I note with interest that Tozer is 3 minutes faster than Hamelin in this sonata. Hamelin’s pace is more suited to the melancholy nature of the piece as wistfulness calls for a slower treatment. In all the other pieces they are both fairly similar in pace. Sometimes Tozer himself is slightly slower than Hamelin. I have also listened to the conductor/composer/pianist Evgeni Svetlanov’s recording of three of the op.38 set, including this sonata (Russian Disc RD CD 10 045). His was the first interpretation of this sonata that I heard. It is often that the first recording one hears sets one’s benchmark and I have to say that his playing of this sonata is still great listening. He plays with a mixture of grandeur and grace which seems to be the perfect combination for Medtner’s music. Of this Sonata the pianist Alexander Goldenweiser wrote in 1923 “The spirit of true poetry and profound internal significance makes it one of the most remarkable achievements of Medtner’s art”. It alone can hook you and draw you into this music and keep you a devoted fan forever.

The opening of the Danza graziosa always reminds me of Scott Joplin, a cheeky tune that has a melancholic edge to it soon giving way to a very Russian theme. The Danza festiva is a delightful musical description of a village festival and probably inspired by a painting of Teniers whom Medtner greatly admired. As his friend, the Hungarian violinist Jarosy observed “…while an empire collapsed in ruins and a new state was arising from the blood-fertilised soil, Medtner was writing pastorals and fairy tales!”(see below). There follow descriptions of rustic dances and of passionately tragic songs without words in music that recalls Mendelssohn and Chopin. The Danza silvestra describes the forests with full use of the piano’s potential to produce the sound of wind in the trees. The cycle ends in a calming mood with Alla reminiscenza.
The Forgotten Melodies op.39 opens with two very dark pieces, the first of which, Meditazione is especially sad, and it is developed further by the subsequent Romanza that is hardly any lighter despite its title. The ensuing Primavera is like a breath of fresh air after such melancholia with a burst of spring in its notes. The last two of the set Canzona matinata and the Sonata tragica Medtner always wished to have performed together as he said they described “the morn of life” in contrast to “the realities of life”. The sonata, although brief, is unique among Medtner’s sonatas having a monothematic ending with a brilliant coda.
The disc ends with Zwei Märchen composed in 1904 and these were only the first of an extensive series of piano miniatures often given the erroneous title “fairy tales” that in no way explain the dark nature they portray. As Boris Asafiev commented: “These are not descriptive tales or tales relating adventures of some kind. These are tales about personal experiences, about the conflicts of a man’s inner life”.
The playing of Marc-André Hamelin is exemplary in its brilliance and control and he is the perfect performer to reveal the depths of this wonderfully reflective and evocative music. A tour de force that certainly equals if not surpasses the Tozer performance. The only thing better than this disc would be to own Hamelin’s four disc set of all the sonatas and forgotten melodies (see review).
Steve Arloff



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