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Nikolai Karlovich MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Complete Works for Violin and Piano
Violin Sonata No. 1 in B minor, op. 21 (1909-10) [20.08]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, op. 44 (1921-25) [39.53]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E minor, op. 57 'Sonata Epica' (1935-38) [44.41]
2 Canzonas and Dances, op. 43 (1921) [15.47]
3 Nocturnes, op. 16 (1907-08) [13.26]
Nikita Boriso-Glebsky (violin) & Ekaterina Derzhavina (piano)
rec. 2017, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Germany
PROFIL PH17087 [60.05 + 73.57]

This double album presents the complete works for violin and piano of Nikolai Medtner, who, although Russian born and bred, spent thirty years of his life in central and western Europe.  

Born in Moscow, Medtner, a younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, was a talented piano virtuoso as well as a composer. A graduate of Moscow Conservatory, he studied under Pabst, Sapellnikoff, Safonov and Taneyev. Medtner left a considerable legacy of works, all of which feature the piano, including over one hundred songs. He left Russia for Germany in 1921, then lived in France until 1935, then finally settled in England and is buried in London. I have always considered Medtner’s Piano Quintet from 1904-48 to be his most significant work and a number of recordings are available. Aside from the three piano concertos and a piano quintet, the bulk of Medtner’s chamber music is for both piano and violin.

The earliest works on this album, the three Nocturnes in D minor, G minor and C minor, were completed in 1908 and dedicated to Medtner’s violinist brother Alexander. He initially named the works the ‘lyrical fragments’, but inspired by Goethe’s poem he prefaced the score with it and settled on the title “Nachtegesange”. The Medtner duo introduced the Nocturnes the following year in Moscow, but the lack of overt virtuosity in the violin part prompted a cool reception. These are superficially dreamy, undemanding scores, the D minor seemingly reflecting some innate disappointment turned inwards, the G minor displaying an aching sadness, and the C minor containing repressed passion.    

The first violin sonata, bearing a dedication to his wife, Anna, dates from Medtner’s time in Russia; it was written in 1909-10 yet there are drafts from as early as 1904. Medtner’s brother Alexander introduced the work but a final revision of the score was premiered in 1911 by violinist Alexander Mogilevsky. It seems that Medtner viewed the three-movement work more as a set of miniatures. Like the Nocturnes, they are of sunny disposition, light and undemanding; the sparkling central Danza is the most interesting movement, being rhythmic reasonably virtuosic.   

It seems that the pair of Canzone and Danze was written just prior to Medtner’s leaving Russia for Germany. In these works, the violin is given prominence over the piano and is more virtuosic. Medtner introduced the works with violinist Dmitri Tsyganov at Moscow Conservatoire during a return visit to his home country in 1927. Written in the manner of the nocturnes and the first sonata, this is more undemanding and agreeable music, the second Canzona containing traces of melancholy and its Danza bordering on extrovert.

Fifteen years after the first, the second violin sonata (1921-25) was completed in France and dedicated to Alexander Gedike. Almost twice the length of the first, it was considered to be a proper sonata by Medtner, who said it would become the most performed of his violin sonatas. The three movements are played without breaks, linked by violin cadenzas. Overall, the sonata feels weighty and almost symphonic in texture. The massive opening movement is imbued with a sense of deep concentration as if a serious outcome is at stake. Next comes a tema con variazione, based on a modest, rather thoughtful, theme of Russian flavour; the final movement is intense and mainly exuberant, with writing of considerable tension under the surface.

Written in Golder’s Green, London the massive third violin sonata (1935-38) entitled 'Sonata Epica,' was dedicated to the memory of his elder brother Emiel, who died in 1936. Around this time Medtner had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith. In 1939 Arthur Catterall and the composer successfully introduced the sonata at Aeolian Hall, London. Ekaterina Derzhavina’s notes describes the sonata as “one of Medtner’s most grandiose works.” No doubt reflecting the death of his brother, the Dies irae motif is quoted in the finale, as well as a short portion from the Russian Orthodox hymn “Christ is Risen”. Medtner clearly lavished great care on the beautiful themes of this masterly work, which takes almost forty-five minutes to perform here. Positive and buoyant, the lengthy opening movement has considerable energy. The Scherzo is even more vigorous, just bursting with energy. A welcome contrast is provided by the affecting Andante, which could easily depict the ache of loneliness or perhaps the pain of unrequited love. Conveying a sense of urgency, the Allegro molto finale is predominantly restless and anxious in character, but also contains contrasting, appealingly melodic, less weighty passages.  

I do not believe that these sonatas are in the same elevated league as those of Medtner’s younger Russian contemporary Prokofiev, but they are worthy and fascinating works, especially the second and third sonatas. The outstanding playing of Nikita Boriso-Glebsky and Ekaterina Derzhavina and their feeling of partnership engaged me from start to finish. Big-toned playing from Boriso-Glebsky is a feature of these assured performances and Derzhavina’s unsentimental approach also works so well. This is dedicated music making from a duo who are clearly on the same page. Quite closely recorded at the Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, these performances are vividly clear, with a balance that slightly favours Derzhavina’s piano. Ekaterina Derzhavina’s essay in the booklet is excellent.

Those looking for non- mainstream, post-Romantic chamber music should find much to enjoy in these Medtner violin sonatas.    

Michael Cookson



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