Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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NICOLAI MEDTNER (1881-1950) The complete (14) piano sonatas Marc-André Hamelin (piano) Hyperion CDA67221-4 4 CDs:  CD1 [65:36] CD2 [61:04] CD3 [74:31] CD4 [77:43] [4:38:54]



The quality and integrity of Hyperion music projects is always evident in the end product. The first complete cycle of the Medtner piano sonatas (14 of them plus two sets of Forgotten Melodies and Zwei Märchen) is an eminent example. The imaginative enterprise obvious from being the first such cycle is typical of the firm. Artistic values are of the very highest. Marc-André Hamelin is a player of phenomenal technical resource but couples this with a clear sympathy with the music releasing its occasionally elusive magic with imagination and power. The design and choice of cover illustration (a moonlit Russian river scene) is perfect. The timings are generous and candidly stated (totals, individual discs and individual sonatas/collections) on the back of the 4 disc jewel case. The notes are by Barrie Martyn, author of the Scolar (now Ashgate) Press (1995) book on the composer. Those notes are sympathetic, devoid of arid and opaque musical analysis which sadly disfigures so many sets of notes and readable. If I have a minor complaint it is that the dates of the sonatas could have been better presented at the head of each section of the notes and in brackets in the track listings. Medtner's birth and death dates are also missing from the collection.

With the exception of the sonatas Opp 5, 22 and 30 Medtner's sonatas have titles or combine the word 'sonata' with other descriptive words like Idyll, Ballada or Night Wind.

Medtner is a romantic melodist of the greatest distinction. He was a fine pianist and recorded many of his own pieces although he did this in old age. He was a Russian who left Russia to escape Bolshevism in 1921 (all the pieces here apart from the Romantica, Minacciosa and Idylle sonatas belong to the Russian years). Finally he settled in England in 1935 dying their with the star of his music in almost abject eclipse in 1950. The recordings sponsored by the Maharajah of Mysore during his last decade had the ill fate to be produced during the last years of the 78 and so disappeared into the sand very quickly.

The romantic spirit of exile we know from German lieder and Rachmaninov meet in Medtner's music. This is mixed with an admirable nobility and a faithful immersion in melody rather than any more modernistic trends. Medtner seems to have been uninfluenced by atonalism, the aleatory or twelve tone music. Nobility and melody meet a spirit of picturesque fantasy which is best summed up in his various Ballades (also known as Contes or Skazki) indeed the Opp 27(1) and 27 works combine these titles with the word 'sonata'.

My introduction to Medtner's music came with hearing Bernard Roberts (remember him from the Nimbus cycle of Beethoven pianos sonatas?) BBC broadcast of one of the sonatas (I think it was the Op. 25 No. 2 work). I was struck by this leonine aristocratic and hyper-romantic music. With my interest caught I bought the Dobson (1965?) memorial symposium of writings about Medtner. Amongst the authors was one Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (another great musical mystery only gradually being revealed).

During the 1970s I continued to explore when recordings and broadcasts permitted. There were HMV-Melodiya LPs of the first two piano concertos. Malcolm Binns gave an extremely fine performance of the third concerto with the BBC Northern conducted by Raymond Leppard. Prior to that I knew the work from Michael Ponti's Vox-Candide LP which I believe has since been reissued on CD. A friend in Glasgow who had a large collection of Medtner's HMV CDs copied these for me onto tape. These included many short piano pieces, some songs (some sung by Schwarzkopf) and the lovely Vocalise-Sonata for wordless soprano and piano. Some of these were reissued in the 1990s in an HMV composer in person CD. Ludmilla Andrew gave a BBC studio recital of some of the songs and either Parikian or Gruenberg (both much used by the BBC) have given broadcasts of cycles of the three violin sonatas.

Hamish Milne recorded a cycle of 4 discs (with the first 2 LP set issued in the early 70s) now on CD for CRD. In the 1990s three cycles of concertos emerged. Demidenko's (Hyperion), Geoffrey Douglas Madge's (Danacord) and Geoffrey Tozer's (Chandos). The composer's Maharajah of Mysore recordings of piano concertos 2 and 3 are coupled on a Testament CD although the his recording of the first concerto does not seem to have made it to CD as yet. Although I have read some slightly dismissive reviews of the Madge CDs I have not heard the recordings yet so would off commenting except to say that Madge is not a pianist I would lightly write off. Of the recordings I know the Demidenko version of the concertos (coupled with the extremely approachable piano quintet are the preferred choice. Hyperion have also recorded Demidenko in at least one Medtner solo recital and Chandos have 4 such discs from Tozer in addition to his concertos. All this activity on disc with quite an explosion of recordings during the 1990s has not been matched by performances in the concert hall.

This music is sometimes projected as being only for the aesthete specialist or piano fanatic. I noticed a Gramophone review (Oct 1998) which seemed to suggest that the works could really only be fully appreciated with the score at hand. I hope that has not put people off this set. The music is accessible to all music lovers. Medtner is NOT Rachmaninov but many of that more famous composer's values are to the fore. The melodies can be whistled. The music is memorable and moving (try the last movement of the Sonaten-Triade Op. 11 if you doubt this) and has a stormily explosive power and brooding atmosphere which is mesmeric and compelling.

Comparison with other cycles is not all that helpful. The four discs are in a single collection. They cannot be bought separately so they do not compete in any useful sense with Milne or Tozer (and neither of those pianists have recorded all the sonatas). I remain to be convinced by Tozer however I have no doubts about the Milne. Emil Gilels' isolated recording of the Reminiscenza is much fêted but oddly enough I have never heard it so hold back from commenting.

Now Hyperion ... about the songs. I cannot imagine any company being able to do a complete cycle of the songs any better than you. There is no indication that such a production is even planned but looking ahead it is a 'natural' for this company who already have a track record which is a beacon for other companies.

I make the strongest recommendation for this Medtner-Hamelin-Hyperion cycle. A 'Hall of Fame' acquisition for all who appreciate grand manner romanticism in music and pianism of dedicated power and piercingly imaginative scope.


Rob Barnett

CD 1 [65:36]
Sonata in F minor Op. 5 [31:30]
Zwei Märchen Op. 8 [9:02]
Sonaten-Triade Op. 11 [24:47]
CD 2 [61:04]
Sonata in G minor Op. 22 [15:47]
Sonata-Skazka in C minor Op. 25/1 [11:40]
Sonata in E minor :Night Wind: Op. 25/2 [33:21]
CD 3 [74:31]
Sonata-Ballada in F sharp Op. 27 [22:44]
Sonata in A minor Op. 30 [12:09]
Vergessene Weisen (Forgotten Melodies) Op. 38 [39:19]
(No 1 Sonata-Reminiscenza: Allegretto tranquillo [16:04]; No 2 Danza graziosa: Con moto leggiero [2:57]; No 3 Danza festiva: Presto [4:47]; No 4 Canzona fluviala: Allegretto con moto [2:40]; No 5 Danza rustica: Allegro commodo [2:01]; No 6 Canzona serenata: Moderato [4:l7]; No 7 Danza silvestra [3:40]; No 8 Alla Reminiscenza: Quasi coda [2:53])
CD 4 [77:43]
Vergessene Weisen (Forgotten Melodies) Op. 39 [26:08]
(No 1 Meditazione: Introduzione, quasi Cadenza - Meno mosso - Meditamente [4:44]; No 2 Romanza: Meditamente [4:19]; No 3 Primavera: Vivace [3:31]; No 4 Canzona matinata: Allegretto cantando, ma sempre con moto [4:34]; No 5 Sonata tragica: Allegro risoluto [9:00])
Sonata in B flat minor :Sonata Romantica: Op. 53/1 [23:40]
Sonata in F minor :Sonata Minacciosa: Op. 53/2 [16:13]
Sonate-Idylle in G major Op. 56 [11:18]


Rob Barnett

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