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Medtner melodies

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)
Forgotten Melodies: Complete Piano Music Volume 1
Forgotten Melodies Cycle I Op38
Etude in C minor ‘of medium difficulty’
2 Skazki Op14
Prologue Op1 No1
Thomas Ang (piano)
rec. 2022, London
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Private release [51]

It is hard enough these days for young artists to build a career with recording no longer representing the route to fame and fortune it once was. Add Covid taking a wrecking ball to live performances and many wonderfully talented younger musicians need the support of listeners more than ever if there is going to be another generation of classical music making at all. This new recording of the music of Medtner is the second self-recorded album I have reviewed in the last twelve months. In both cases, the performers are to be commended for their initiative and, particularly in the case of this present release, deserve to be heard by a wider public.

Climbing down from my soapbox, Thomas Ang’s piano playing speaks for itself even if he has made an already difficult task even harder by choosing to record the music of the ultimate nearly man of composers, Nikolai Medtner. Ang studied his work under the doyen of Medtner performers, Hamish Milne and that enthusiasm flowered, he tells us in his expertly written booklet, as a kind of sanity saving exercise in lockdown. Of more questionable sanity was his decision to perform all of Medtner’s solo piano music live in just one day!

Presumably as a consequence of that kind of deep immersion in Medtner’s work, Ang seems to feel this somewhat elusive music from the inside. His sensitivity to the variety of invention in music that can, in the wrong hands, seem utterly conventional is one of the joys of this recording. There is a palpable sense of someone playing music because of deep inner conviction and love throughout which I found most appealing. Ang also possesses the technical prowess to realise the fruits of that sensitivity at the keyboard. Again and again I was stopped in my tracks by moments of exquisite delicacy such as the liquid close to the Prologue Op1 No1. There seems to be a deliberate irony in closing a recital with not just a composer’s first published work but one called Prologue!! It is as though Ang were inviting us to join him on a journey and I, for one, am enticed to follow him into future volumes of Medtner’s music.

They say a measure of a great teacher is that the pupil exceeds the master and much though I enjoy Milne’s recordings of Medtner, I did find myself preferring the greater sense of fantasy that Ang brings to these delicate scores. Milne sometimes sounds like he is trying to convince us of the greatness of this music where Ang seems serenely confident of the fact. Of course, bigger challenges such as the bulk of the sonatas lie ahead in future volumes for the younger pianist though in the one big piece included here – the Sonata-Reminiscenza that opens the first cycle of Forgotten Melodies - Ang can stand comparison with even the great Emil Gilels. Gilels’ is an extremely extrovert (and fabulous) account but I can’t help feeling that Ang’s more introverted view is closer to the pastel colours of Medtner’s music. Not that Ang is any way deficient at dazzling us with his technique. The second of the Op14 Skazki demonstrates phenomenal finger control and an infectious sense of rhythmic verve without ever departing from the intimacy essential to Medtner’s work. A great positive of this recording is that Ang does not try to play Medtner as if he were Rachmaninov.

Like a kind of musical auteur, Ang not only plays the music but has recorded it himself, written the booklet notes and even designed the cover. The sound is very close but the sense of him playing for us in his study suits the intimate nature of the music admirably.

This release represents an astonishing bargain at just 3 for the digital album which includes a PDF of the booklet. Of course one is free to pay more and I would encourage readers to see it as an investment in talent as well as buying a marvellous recital. Another way of looking at this is as an invitation to support something akin to the old subscription societies that enabled the likes of Schnabel to record all the Beethoven piano sonatas.

I have no desire to leave anyone reading this review with the impression that this recording is some kind of charity case. This is piano playing good enough to be picked up by any label. It is piano playing good enough to convert open minded listeners to the Medtner cause. I believe the next volume is due in January. I can’t wait.

David McDade

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