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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Complete works for violin and piano - Volume 2
Violin Sonata No.1 in B minor, op.21 (1910) [20:34]
Two Canzonas with Dances, op.43 (1924) [16:56]
Violin Sonata No.2 in G, op.44 (1924) [41:30]
Laurence Kayaleh (violin); Paul Stewart (piano)
rec. 18–19 June 2007, Pollock Hall, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montréal, Quebec, Canada. DDD
NAXOS 8.570299 [79:10] 
Experience Classicsonline

Possibly unique amongst 20th century composers, every work composed by Nikolai Medtner includes his own instrument – the piano. Whilst his output isn’t large, in comparison with some who lived into their seventies, Medtner’s is a rich catalogue. It includes fourteen Piano Sonatas – some of them very large pieces full of Beethovenian turmoil and stress. There are also many miniatures for the instrument. Especially remembered are the various series of Skazki, or Fairy Tales; not to mention three magnificent Concertos, three Violin Sonatas, a Piano Quintet and 108 songs. Like the songs of his lifelong friend Rachmaninov, Medtner’s songs are glorious settings of various poets. Again like his compatriot, these pieces should be given by our young singers looking for interesting vocal repertoire. Kilpinen’s songs are as fine and should also be investigated.

Medtner was the youngest of five children, born in Moscow on Christmas Eve 1879 (Julian calendar)/ 5 January 1880 (Gregorian calendar). He took piano lessons from his mother until he entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1890 when aged 10! His teachers were Pavel Pabst, Vassily Sapellnikoff,  Vasily Safonov and Sergei Taneyev. In 1900 he took the Anton Rubinstein prize. Despite his keyboard prowess, Medtner preferred a career as composer and he remained in Russia after the Revolution. He finally settled in Golders Green, in north London, in 1935, spending his time teaching and composing. 

Towards the end of Medtner’s life the Maharaja of Mysore sponsored a series of recordings. This was intended to be a complete issue of Medtner’s works – with the composer performing. However his death cut short the project. These 78s were long sought after by collectors. Now they are out of copyright they have been re–issued on CD. They should be heard by anyone interested in the Russian piano school and are some of the most fastidious and subtle compositions created. 

In 1990 the BBC broadcast all Medtner’s works for violin and piano with that great violinist Manoug Parikian, accompanied by one of Medtner’s best interpreters, Hamish Milne. Even this exposure failed to encourage public performances and these works have never caught on as repertoire pieces, probably because they don’t conform to any established form. Earlier, in 1985, the BBC also broadcast a series of nine of the Piano Sonatas in, mainly, studio performances. Again, concert performances never materialized. 

Only the 1st Violin Sonata, a relatively early piece, falls into the conventional three movement sonata-structure. This is an innocent, romantic piece, well wrought with the young composer flexing his compositional muscles. Kayaleh and Stewart perform it as if it was the Franck Sonata – richly and romantically, emphasizing the melodic aspects of the work. They point towards, what at the time must have seemed like, a new sound-world. This is a lovely performance. 

The 2nd Violin Sonata of fourteen years later is an altogether different prospect. Playing for nearly three-quarters of an hour, with a virtuoso piano part of almost Concerto dimensions, here is the mature composer, fully in command of his art, creating music of heroic dimensions. Indeed, heroic is a word which ably describes Medtner’s largest works, such as the Sonata reminiscenza, op.38/1 (from the Forgotten Melodies: Volume 1) (1919) or the towering Sonata in E minor, The Night Wind, op.25/2 (1913). This work, in three movements, an Introduction, Theme and Variations and a rondo finale, is an emotionally exhausting experience, so complex are Medtner’s argument and thick textures. Those who claim that Medtner’s was a smaller talent than Rachmaninov’s need only to hear this work to be disabused of such a misguided thought. That Medtner didn’t possess Rachmaninov’s overt passionate outpourings is irrelevant - this is simply very fine music. I am sure that that is one reason why this fabulous music has been ignored. Kayaleh and Stewart’s understanding, and very obvious passionate advocacy shines through every bar of their performance. They never lose sight of the ultimate musical goal. They throwing off of the complexities of the music and bringing out the glowing, and very sunny, conclusion to the work. It’s not a moment too long and at the end I would quite happily have spent another half hour with it had the composer thought this necessary! 

Between the two Sonatas is the lighter Two Canzonas with (two) Dances, a delightful concoction which makes no pretense at profundity. It is there simply to please. 

This is a super disk well worth getting hold of. Medtner’s art is very special and our lack of hearings of his works has robbed us all of something extraordinarily wonderful. With very good recording and fine notes this is a release to return to again and again.

Bob Briggs


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