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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Medtner plays Medtner - Volume II: Archive recordings of the 1940s
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 33 (1914-18) [33:27]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 50 (1926-27) [35:53]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E minor Ballade, Op. 60 (1942-43) [34:43]
Sonata-Ballade in F sharp major, Op. 27 (1912-14) [22:57]
Nikolai Medtner (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/George Weldon (1); Issay Dobrowen (2, 3)
rec. mono, 1947, London. ADD
MELODIYA MELCD1002274 [69:24 + 57:45]

It remains remarkable that today's listeners can in Medtner's case hear the composer interpreting his own music. It could so easily have been otherwise. But for the riches of a certain Maharajah, who Medtner made the dedicatee of the Third Piano Concerto, none of this would have happened. Volume 1 of this Medtner series set out a portion of the solo piano recordings made by Medtner as part of this munificent scheme. In addition there are songs, a violin sonata and other pieces for solo piano (APR: vols 1, 2, 3). We can only speculate how much of a difference there would have been if these recordings had not been made in the composer's old age and regret the absence of the Piano Quintet.

This is very special - a set on its own. There are plenty of modern recordings if you wish the finest sound but this double is the way to hear the composer's own imaging of his three magisterial unshowy concertos. This is our closest approach to the composer speaking to eternity. The recordings of Piano Concertos 2 and 3 have for years been accessible on a Testament CD (SBT1027). The First Piano Concerto has always been a rare item. It appeared on the Historic Recordings label but this Melodiya is a much superior cleansed transfer. It remains a bit crumbly under high volume conditions but this is the best rendering of the sound I have heard. It's a pretty agreeable listen and fascinating in its own right. Try the last movement of No. 1 as a sampler. The composer's glittering piano rhetoric overlays the last few pages in indelibly memorable style. The Second Piano Concerto dates from a decade after the First which itself was a thing of the Great War years. Its melodic material is more distinctive than that of its predecessor. The sound is more pristine than that emerging from the First Concerto but a step back in immediacy; just a matter of setting the gain control higher. The performance is a thing of verve and pulsating urgency. The conductor Issay Dobrowen was already in sympathy with Medtner. Dobrowen's own piano concerto is not far removed from this world. Medtner's Third Piano Concerto is a sturdy work bearing a title (Ballade) and reflecting a fairytale mood that is at play in many of his compositions for solo piano. Don't be misled: these fairies are not the denizens of Andrew Lang: nothing fey here and no gauzy wings. This is the Ballade (Fairtyale, Skazka) as exemplified in its different grown-up facets by Ransome's Old Peter's Russian Tales, of Baba Yaga, of The Firebird and the illustrator Kay Nielsen. Medtner is in sturdy form with no sign of the depredations of advanced years. Listen to the piano in the galloping episodes and the almost Straussian (Johann) swoons of the long (18:41) finale. Medtner's piano concertos became finer and stronger with each one that he wrote. A noticeable generally subordinate bristling of surface noise runs under the three movement recording of the affluently intricate and ambitious Sonata-Ballade as it does under that of the First Concerto. Intrinsically however the piano sound is forthright and utterly musical. Listen out for the glorious melody near the start of the finale; one to count alongside the related delight in the Sonata Romantica.

Out and out Medtner fans can also listen to many archive recordings on the Medtner website. Downloads can be accessed here but there is much more on that site.

The anonymous notes are in Russian Cyrillic, English and French.

Three magisterial piano concertos played with ultimate authority by Medtner himself.

Rob Barnett



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