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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Piano Music - Volume 1
Primavera (Spring Tale), Forgotten Melodies Second Cycle Op. 39 No. 3 (1918-20) [3:49]
Meditation, Forgotten Melodies Second Cycle Op. 39 No. 1 (1918-20) [6:12]
Fairy Tale in E flat major Op. 26 No. 2 (1912) [1:30]
Fairy Tale in F minor (Ophelia's Song) Op. 14 No. 1 (1906-07) [3:32]
Fairy Tale in E minor (March of the Paladin) Op. 14 No. 2 (1918-20) [3:58]
Fairy Tale in G major Op. 9 No. 3 (1904-06) [1:55]
Fairy Tale in D minor (1915) [1:56]
Fairy Tale in C sharp minor Op. 35 No. 4 (1916-17) [3:50]
Three Hymns in Praise of Toil Op. 49 (1916-17) (No. 1: Before Work; No. 2: At the Anvil; No. 3: After Work) [10:32]
Elegy Op. 59 No. 2 (1938) [8:56]
Dithyramb Op. 10 No. 2 (1898-1906) [8:40]
Hamish Milne (piano)
rec. 1977, Unitarian Church, Rosslyn Hill, London
CRD 3338 [54:56]

Medtner has never quite achieved the fame and reputation of his contemporaries Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Even so, he has gathered a circle of admirers and it seems to be increasing with more recordings being made so that there is now often a choice of versions. The British pianist Hamish Milne can claim a good deal of the credit for this since he has been recording Medtner since 1977 and has probably recorded more of his works than has anyone else. So much so that it seems almost impertinent to review one of his recordings. However, here is the first, and this is a suitable opportunity to consider why Medtner has been slow to gain popularity and what Milne’s distinctive contribution has been.

Medtner belongs to a recognizably Russian school of pianist composers who owe a common debt to Liszt, and it is Liszt’s kind of piano writing that is the basis for his style. Occasionally you get hints of Chopin and, especially, Schumann with his love of insistent rhythms. There are also influences from Scriabin with his augmented harmony particularly noticeable in the second work here, the Meditation Op. 39 No.1 and also in the third of the Three Hymns Op. 49, also in his love of polyrhythms which are in evidence in many of these pieces. Rachmaninov I feel must have influenced Medtner’s fluid left-hand parts, which range up and down the instrument and also his chordal writing which is rich and full.

The problem is quite simply that Medtner does not wear his heart on his sleeve. This is the music of an introvert. He has tunes as good as Rachmaninov and can give you as many flourishes and displays as you like; his works are very difficult. All that said, somehow you can feel that this music was written for him to play to himself in a darkened room and one is not quite sure whether one should be listening. This is an artistic effect in itself, but it is at first off-putting. There is also the formidable complexity of his fourteen piano sonatas, the largest and perhaps the greatest collection in this form of any Russian composer.

So it is perhaps easier to approach him in his shorter works, and I think that for this, the first of his six collections of Medtner’s piano music for CRD, Milne has chosen a group of works which he finds particularly enticing. Here I am happy to follow him. Milne knows this music inside out and he knows how to project it to the listener and make him feel welcome. He unravels the complex textures, showing that the fine and long-spanned melodies are surrounded with an intricate drapery of filigree work. He varies the tone so that we are not bashed over the head with myriads of notes. He also articulates the structures so we can follow the pieces as if they were stories. In fact six of the eleven works here are from the collections Medtner entitled Fairy Talesskazki in Russian – which, while they don’t tell specific stories, are often in effect narratives in music. This is particularly true of the two Op. 14 pieces here, where the first represents Shakespeare’s Ophelia and the second, the March of the Paladin, is a long toccata.

The choice of works here is very varied and we find that Medtner’s idiom is more varied than it may at first appear. He was famous for establishing his style early and retaining it throughout his working life. He did not reinvent himself as did, say, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Nevertheless, there is a wide range of moods, for example the water piece Op. No. 3 being quite different from the D minor 1915 work which follows it here and which goes into some very strange places.

Milne seems to present rather than interpret the music, by which I mean that his interpretations seem inevitable and unforced, though that is what every good pianist hopes to achieve. Where I have been able to check against the score I can testify that he is faithful to Medtner’s markings. The only comparison I had to hand was that of Hamelin, and I would distinguish them by saying that Hamelin is possibly more mercurial and Milne more noble.

Despite the age of the recording it is outstanding, with no trace of distortion in climaxes and a rich and resonant Steinway sound. If I mention that Bob Auger was the balance engineer that is all that needs to be said about that. The notes are very skimpy but the cover picture delightful. If you want to start exploring Medtner, this is the place to start.

Stephen Barber
Previous reviews: Peter Grahame Woolf ~ Rob Barnett



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