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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951) Complete Works for Violin and Piano: Vol.1
Violin Sonata No.3 in E Minor, Op.57 "Epica" (1938) [46:34]
Three Nocturnes, Op.16 (1909) [13:50]
Fairy Tale, Op.20, No.1 in B flat minor (arr. Jasha Heifetz) (1909) [3:14]
Laurence Kayaleh (violin), Paul Stewart (piano).
rec. Pollack Hall, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 18-20 December 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570298 [63:47]

After decades of neglect, it seems that Nikolai Medtner's music is finally beginning to receive some of the attention it deserves. Interestingly it has been British labels Chandos, CRD, ASV and Hyperion that have led the pack in this resurgence. Not to be outdone, Naxos has recorded some of Medtner's piano music, including his three concertos, and now with this disc launches what should be a two disc series of Medtner's complete works for violin and piano. 

The disc begins at the end, as it were, with a performance of Medtner's third violin sonata, his final work for violin and piano. Given the soubriquet Epica, it is almost symphonic in scale, comprising four substantial movements. While the music is never lachrymose, it is pervaded by an affecting sadness, the key to which is found in the dedication of the sonata: to the memory of Medtner's brother Emil. This is a significant and tightly structured work which impresses with its unencumbered beauty and formal coherence across a wide time-scale. The introduction to the first movement - tracked separately on this disc - and the andante con moto third movement are suffused with bitter-sweet longing and mournful beauty, largely due to Medtner's use of the Aeolian mode. The outer movements and the scherzo sparkle with folk dance rhythms and even in the most hectic passages the music never becomes strident. Throughout, Medtner maintains interest with the fascinating harmonic turns that characterise so much of his output and which won the admiration of Rachmaninov.

The Three Nocturnes take us back to the beginnings of Medtner's oeuvre for violin and piano. They were written while the composer was travelling in Germany, between settings of texts by Goethe, his favourite poet. As the liner notes reveal, he had intended to set Goethe's Nachtgesang, but instead adapted his sketches into these three songs without words, replacing the voice with the violin. Each of the Nocturnes is composed in a minor key in a simple rondo form. Although none of them lasts for a full five minutes, Medtner still finds time and space for plenty of brooding melancholy and an impassioned climax at the death of each. 

Heifetz's arrangement of the first piece from Medtner's Skazka for solo piano is an ideal encore, both generally and for this recital in particular. It is the concentrated essence of Medtner - ardently romantic and harmonically intriguing. 

Laurence Kayaleh and Paul Stewart play Medtner's music with affection and commitment. Kayaleh is a violinist of character. Her tone is sweet rather than rounded, and she knows how to shape and colour a phrase. Her tuning is impeccable and she handles the finger twisting runs, fiendish double stopping and leaps across the violin's range with easy virtuosity. Canadian pianist Paul Stewart plays his part with sensitivity and lightness of touch. While his fingers easily handle Medtner's virtuosic piano writing, he is not at all showy, preferring to caress Medtner's melodic lines and romantic harmonies. His interplay with Kayaleh is delightful. He also contributes the excellent liner notes which skilfully entwine biographical details with comments on the music. 

Medtner has often been dismissed as a stuffy Russian Brahms born half a century too late, or as Rachmaninov without the tunes. Both assessments are unfair, and this disc will show you why with greater eloquence than I can muster. It will also kindle within you an affection for this neglected composer and a desire to know him better. Bring on volume 2!

Tim Perry



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