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Historic Recordings

Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 33 (1914-18) [33:28] Piano Sonata Op. 39 No. 5 Sonata Tragica (1920) [14:26]
Two Arabesques
Op. 7 (1904) [8:01]
Nikolai Medtner (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/George Weldon
rec. Abbey Road studio, London: three sessions October-November 1947 (concerto); 19 March 1947 (Tragica)
Transfers of HMV DB6900/4 by Greg Thompson, Casselberry, Florida, USA. AAD

cover image

Historic Recordings

Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951) Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sings Medtner
Four Pushkin Settings: The Muse (In days when I was young) Op. 29 No. 1; The Rose ("Where, where is the rosebud.") Op. 29 No. 6; The Waltz (How can I forget) Op. 32 No. 5; When roses fade Op. 36 No. 3 Goethe settings: Elfenliedchen Op. 6 No. 3; Im vorubergchen Op. 6 No. 4; Selbstbetrug Op. 15 No. 3; Aus ‘Lila’ Op. 15 No. 5; Meerestille Op. 15 No. 7; Gluckliche fahrt Op. 15 No. 8; Einsamkeit Op. 18 No.3 From Sieben Lieder Op 46: Preludium (Goethe). No. 1; Winternacht (Eichendorff). No. 5; Die Quelle ((Chamisso). No. 6
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) Nicolai Medtner (piano) rec. 1950 Columbia LX 1423-1426 from 78rpm shellacs in the collection of John H Lewis. AAD

Experience Classicsonline

Working from commercially issued material Historic Recordings (previously Pine Tree Historicals, I think) have moved imaginatively to fill a Medtner gap of grievous longstanding.

Testament with their impeccable credentials have access to original HMV material. Amongst their earliest CD releases was SBT 1027, Medtner’s own 1947 recordings of the Second and Third Piano Concertos. Testament never followed through with the First. Strange and it was not as if there was not plenty of contemporary Medtner material to fill out the issue including the long gestated Piano Quintet. For many silvery decades the composer’s own recording of the First Piano Concerto remained adamantly inaccessible … until now.

I say inaccessible but that’s not quite true. In the vinyl era, circa 1975, an unusual thing happened. The Soviet record company Melodiya issued four LPs based on the Medtner Society recordings. These included Piano Concerto No. 1 and Tragic Sonata Op.39 on M10 41169. There were also three other Russian LPs: Piano Concerto 2 (Dobrowen) and Two Novelettes Op.17 M10 41171, Piano Concerto 3 and Two Pieces Op.7 M10 41173 and Sonata-Ballade, songs (with Oda Slobodskaya), Russian Round Dance (dedicated to Edna Iles but played on this recording with Moiseiwitsch) (r.1946-47) M10 45523. They did not receive wide circulation outside the USSR although some copies did make their way to the USA and, I seem to recall, via Harold Moores in London.

How did those 1947 recordings happen? They were paid for by a Medtner admirer, the Maharajah of Mysore. The programme took in a very generous swathe of the Medtner oeuvre. The venue was London’s Abbey Road studios and the sessions timetable was compressed into the period from March to November 1947. Four volumes of material were taken down. This included all three concertos, much of the solo piano music, a selection of the songs and one of the violin sonatas. Only three volumes were actually issued and much to Medtner’s chagrin Columbia (EMI predecessor) put them out on their most expensive label. He wanted them to be much more accessible to everyone. The 67 year old composer took on a deep draught of new life and energy, gratified and encouraged by this unlooked for generosity. You can hear this in the performances on this disc. Medtner interrupted work on the writing of the Piano Quintet, and was the pianist throughout the hectic seven months of sessions. Soloists of great sympathy were chosen including Oda Slobodskaya and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf for the songs. The composer was joined by Moiseiwitsch for the two-piano works.

I have never known why Medtner or HMV or the Maharajah switched conductors for the final session however that is what happened. The Second Concerto sessions in 1947 had taken place on 2, 5, 7 and 9 May and the Third on 10, 13, 26 and 28 May. Both the Second and Third Concertos were conducted by fellow Russian Issay Dobrowen (1891-1953) whose own piano concerto (1912-1926) is worth getting if you appreciate the Medtner concertos. The same orchestra, the Philharmonia, was retained for the First Concerto recording.

George Weldon (1906-1961), then principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (1944-1951), was no stranger to the three Medtner concertos. At the time he had only recently conducted the LSO in all three in the composer’s presence. The pianist for those concerts was Edna Iles (1915-2003) a long-standing Medtner advocate who was praised by the composer but who was never able to make any commercial recordings although BBC archive tapes survive. Her three concerts with Weldon took place in January and March 1946 at the Royal Albert Hall.

In any event the First Piano Concerto was duly issued in one of the Medtner Society albums comprising seven 78s (HMV DB 9379/85). The companions were the Sonata Tragica and various songs sung by Slobodskaya. The Concerto is given a passionate and joyous performance which you can hear through the busily whiskery surface noise. It may have been Medtner’s first piano concerto but one hears the authentic mature voice with no allowances having to be made by comparison with the other two works. The composer’s usual lapidary writing is in evidence through the busy surfaces and pre-echo (at the start) left authentically intact by a philosophy that is more Pearl than Cedar. My version of the review disc had only the two tracks that make up the First Piano Concerto. No sign of the Sonata Tragica or the Two Arabesques.

The lieder disc picks up the Schwarzkopf songs with the composer at the piano. The surface noise is less than on the Piano Concerto. The four Pushkin songs are sung in Schwarzkopf’s heavily German-accented English. Rapturous and regal singing in the first and third songs, inward in The Rose and prayerfully meditative in When Roses Fade. There is energised playing from the composer and no wonder in the presence of this pure and intelligent voice. Especially in When Roses Fade the piano part recalls the piano line in the songs of Sorabji himself a great supporter of Medtner. The remaining songs are Medtner in German serious lieder form. They are sung with precise élan and chiming pleasure in the soprano’s native language. Her shiny-eyed wit is much in evidence in Aus Lila and Gluckliche fahrt.

Although the present disc has all the marks of a home-grown project without programme notes, texts or translations the value of what they have done is undoubted. They deserve support.

Rob Barnett
































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