Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Mood Pictures Op.1 [20:43]
Three Improvisations Op.2 [19:27]
Four Pieces Op.4 [11:59]
Three Arabesques Op.7 [10:02]
Three Dithyrambs Op.10 [17:25]
Three Novellen Op.17 [15:09]
Four Lyrical Fragments Op.23 [9:54]
Étude in C minor [2:32]
Three Pieces Op.31 [13:45]
Three Hymns to Toil Op.49 [10:44]
Theme and variations in C sharp minor Op.55 [9:01]
Two Elegies Op.59 [14:58]
Hamish Milne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 20-22 September 2010, 10-12 March 2011
HYPERION CDA 67851/2 [80:20 + 77:11]
I’d just finished speaking with my son on the phone before I began this review and he was telling me that he was about to go into a pub in London where they served 23 real ales … wow! I feel even more fortunate to be reviewing these two discs which have 38 pieces of real quality on them which I’ll be able to enjoy any time I like.
Some years ago when I first really discovered Medtner I felt hugely exhilarated just as I imagine a beachcomber does when he finds something quite unexpected and of great value. It comes as no surprise to learn that no lesser a pianist-composer than Rachmaninov said that Medtner alone ‘from the very beginning, published works that it would be hard for him to equal in later life’.
It is truly amazing to hear the first few notes of Prolog from his opus one which he began composing when only 15 and which are not only fresh but perfectly formed, sounding as if it comes from someone who had already mastered his craft even at that early stage. As my mother-in-law is fond of saying “he must have been here before!” This is followed by a fantastic tune Allegro con impeto, lasting a mere couple of minutes. That’s what I particularly like and admire about Medtner: his ability to say so much in such tiny frameworks. These are the same reasons I love Satie and other miniaturists’ skill in economy, for they prove conclusively that less is more. Medtner also magically creates musical worlds that transport you to another plane as he does with his Andante from the first set. He loves having notes cascade so beautifully. You have to marvel at the amount of invention he could cram into a piece such as the last of this set that lasts a mere minute and a half. Published a year later in 1904 his opus two Three Improvisations, contain some of the longest of his short pieces.The first of them tells of the water nymph famously written about by Dvořák in Rusalka and by Ravel in Ondine;it was a theme Medtner returned to more than once. These still short pieces by any normal standards show the breadth of Medtner’s invention when he allows himself more time to explore themes. The second, entitled Memories of a ball, transport us back to a bygone age of elegance glimpsed so often in the best costume dramas. The last of the three, Scherzo infernale tells of the “mischievous creatures of Russian folklore” rather “than of the hell and damnation of Liszt’s ‘Mephisto’ pieces” as Hamish Milne explains in his excellent booklet notes.
What is truly incredible about Medtner’s writing is that his economy doesn’t equate to trifles that one might expect from lesser composers of his era. They dashed off popular little tunes to be played at home by those wealthy enough to buy pianos in the early years of the 20th century when owning a piano for such people was de rigueur. These short works encompass whole worlds and emerge fully formed with nothing left to be added.
It was fascinating reading Hamish Milne’s notes as I listened. His explanations of the music help to increase the enjoyment. I found this to be the case especially with the last of the Four Pieces in which Medtner explores his German heritage so effectively. Milne explains its complexity which is contained within its mere two and a half minutes in such a way that only makes me regret even more my inability to read music or play the piano, the better to understand such wonderful music ... in my next life. Then we come to his Three Arabesques which, as Hamish Milne explains, were not written as such but the publisher “bundled” the first entitled Ein Idyll together with two pieces each entitled Tragoedie-Fragment “under the absurdly incongruous title Arabesques”. That’s how they are known today. The degree of incongruity is evident as the lilting sounds of Ein Idyll fade from its “gentle melancholy” to the weighty and serious world described in the first of the Tragoedie. The second is even more disturbed and tempestuous and a far cry from anything bearing the title Idyll. However, whether we are listening to a musical description of bliss or of sadness and despair Medtner is able in a mere couple of minutes to encapsulate such feelings so brilliantly.
The first of this two disc set is rounded off with Drei Dithyramben about which meaning there is a certain unresolved opinion. It could be connected to a general paean to the gods. There is a stately nature to these pieces. They are extremely serious in their treatment, not to say portentous, which note is struck at the start of the first with its four gong-like strokes; not for nothing is it marked Maestoso severamente. The second and longest is similarly imbued with a commanding grandeur while the third is like a postscript with a much lighter tone to it.
Disc two is similarly packed with wondrous things, all, like disc one, in the chronological order of their composition. All confirm Medtner’s complete mastery of the piano miniature in which a whole world of feeling can be portrayed in the shortest imaginable time frame. From the three Novellen, through the Four Lyrical Fragments and the solitary Étude in C minor, written as a contribution to a 1916 collection in aid of war victims, we are continuously reminded of this composer’s incredible inventiveness and ability to make every note tell with neither a note too many or too few. Whether he is expressing joy or sadness, pride or regret he gets his message across perfectly. A particular example is the second of his Trois morceaux which he dedicated to a gifted composer, Alexei Stanchinsky who tragically drowned in 1914 at only 26 and who was thought of as a genius in the making. This is both a tribute to an artist as well as an expression of sadness at the death of a talented young man and is expressed so eloquently that it is truly affecting. The third of these pieces is a Skazka or fairytale, a form he was especially fond of and which he wrote no less than 34, all of which can be heard on another excellent Hyperion 2 disc set from Hamish Milne (CDA67491/2).
The Drei Hymnen an die Arbeit, the title of which no one seems to have found the inspiration for, begins with an absolutely beautiful piece marked Allegro molto tranquillo which it most certainly is. All three were responded to in a one word telegram from Rachmaninov ‘Superb’. Hamish Milne may describe it as an ‘irrelevant digression’ but I loved his story that Medtner so often finished off his piano practise with a C major cadence that his dog came to recognise it and would show that he was ready to be taken for a walk upon hearing it! The Theme and Variations in C sharp minor at 9 minutes is the longest piece on these 2 CDs. It’s nice to hear what Medtner could do when he allowed himself more time as he takes his little minuet on an excursion of dazzlingly virtuosic proportions.
The final offering on the second of these generously packed discs is his very last solo piano piece, Zwei Elegien op.59. His biographer, Barrie Martyn rates these as being ‘among the composer’s finest creations’. The second of them I find particularly fine. Nevertheless my response to all of Medtner’s piano music is such that I can truthfully say that my favourite piece is usually whichever I’m listening to at the time. Having said that I must confess to adoration of his Forgotten Melodies which were my introduction to this brilliant composer’s works. However, I absolutely agree with Hamish Milne’s closing remarks in his booklet notes in which he says that should those devotees of Medtner’s music neglect the works on this set because they are not considered of such import as the major works - the Sonatas and Skazki or the three piano concertos, then ‘we shall be a lot poorer for it’ - how true! As Hamish Milne also points out Medtner did die a disappointed man for whom widespread recognition and appreciation still eluded him. Those of us who adore his music and are convinced that ‘his day will come’ have every reason to be optimistic that that day is not far off. Sets such as this will be further help in ensuring its speedy arrival. Hamish Milne has done a superb job in helping that process with superlative recordings of lasting value.
Steve Arloff 

These short works encompass whole worlds and emerge fully formed with nothing left to be added.