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Hyperion Records

CDA67491/2 - Medtner: Skazki
CDA67491/2

Recording details: October 2006
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: April 2007
DISCID: 1512A116 33122614
Total duration: 155 minutes 47 seconds

GRAMOPHONE AWARD NOMINATION - INSTRUMENTAL
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE CHOICE
HELSINGIN SANNOMAT DISC OF THE YEAR 2007 (Finland)

'They're among [Medtner's] characteristic utterances and include many of his finest inspirations. Some are simply masterpieces … it's excellent to have a complete collection from Hamish Milne, one of our leading Medtnerians, as a welcome counterpart to Marc-André Hamelin's complete Sonatas, also on Hyperion. Milne is in complete technical and expressive command, bringing to them the fleetness and rhythmic spring, the varied character and wit, that all Medtner's music needs. He crests the summists of their virtuosity with such ease one can concentrate throughout on the music, not the pianist, as Medtner intended … he expounds the composer's thought with complete identification and sympathy' (BBC Music Magazine)

'From the very first of these skazki ('tales'), I was hooked. Much of this is to do with the advocacy of Hamish Milne, who has already recorded some of this repertoire for the CRD label, is regarded by many as the composer's greatest living champion and, as his booklet note emphasises, is determined to see through the prejudice that has dogged the composer's reputation since his death in 1951. His playing has the muscularity to cope with Medtner's often challenging rhythmic writing—listen to the bracing 'Dance Tale' from Op 48 of 1925—while this vigour is counterbalanced by a sensitivity to the music's poetry and lyricism. Indeed, his sympathy for Medtner's ever-amenable style—echoing Rachmaninov and Debussy at times—ensures that the ear is constantly engaged' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This is a major, important release … Milne has been recording Medtner for quite some time now … and his detailed and very well written booklet notes are on the same high level as his pianism … no-one plays these musical Tales as well as Hamish Milne' (American Record Guide)

'Hamish Milne's performances maintain a high level of consistency, presenting Medtner's ideas with great clarity. His playing has a crispness and rhythmic vitality that serves the music well. Medtner's various moods are all capably handled … an impressive achievement and eminently recommendable recording … recorded sound is up to Hyperion's usual excellent standards' (International Record Review)

'The 38 Skazki are the most important piano miniatures that Nikolay Medtner composed … there's something discursive and fantastical about these pieces; intensely conservative, Medtner's musical language was always rooted in late 19th-century romanticism, the world that his contemporary and friend Rachmaninov fashioned into a distinctive personal style, but which Medtner preserved almost intact. Yet his piano writing is vivid and superbly idiomatic; there are wonderful things in these Skazki, which are inspired by a wide range of literary sources, from Goethe and Shakespeare (King Lear and Hamlet) to Pushkin and Russian folklore … Hamish Milne is a wonderful guide to this world—his performances are both technically outstanding and musically penetrating' (The Guardian)

'Each one a unique gem of beguiling invention. Notoriously difficult to bring off, Hamish Milne makes some of the most exacting pages in the repertoire sound glorious' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Medtner was sometimes chided for lacking focus, but there's nothing diffuse in these clean-cut and formally lucid readings, which manage to present a wealth of boldly delineated detail without ever obscuring the music's overall trajectories. We're certainly unlikely to get a better complete run of the Skazki in the foreseeable future. Strongly recommended … a revelation: music of fantasy and individuality, and played by Milne with devotion' (Fanfare, USA)

'Milne has recorded many epoch-making Medtner discs and his new collection of the complete Skazki stands out as his finest to date. The richness of ideas and the overwhelming range of expression is Medtner at his finest. Milne eclipses Geoffrey Tozer in his otherwise brilliant Chandos recording and I cannot think of a pianist today who can better this' (Pianist)

'Milne's is a sincere and personal journey, as Medtner's undoubtedly was; the sound is fresh and unfussy, and Milne's own notes perspicuous and heartfelt' (International Piano)

'Completed by flawless recording quality—immediate, vivid and truthful, but never oppressive (dynamics are faithfully captured)—this is a quite outstanding and revelatory issue' (ClassicalSource.com)

Skazki
CD1
Andantino  [3'19]
Allegro  [6'44]
Allegro inquieto  [3'34]
Molto vivace  [1'30]
Sostenuto  [4'01]
Andante maestoso  [3'44]
CD2
Presto  [2'11]

This is a magnificent and important set.

Notwithstanding the current revival of interest in Medtner (in which Hyperion has played no small part) the complete Skazki have never been recorded together, and some of the pieces here are receiving their long overdue first recordings. The Skazki (‘Märchen’ in German; ‘Contes’ in French; the incorrect ‘Fairy Tales’ in English) were the most personal of Medtner’s idioms and contain his most immediately appealing music: they are miniature tone poems full of atmosphere and colour and are arguably the most neglected ‘great’ piano music in the repertoire.

Medtner has been central to Hamish Milne’s repertoire since the 1970s—he has already recorded eight CDs of the composer’s music—and no one has a finer grasp of the subtle sound world of these works. Hamish has here surpassed himself in a recording which is also graced with superlative piano sound. These CDs are sure to be regarded as definitive for many years to come.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Medtner first adopted the title Skazka (‘Tale’) for his shorter piano pieces in 1904. He would probably have known Rimsky-Korsakov’s Skazka for orchestra (1886), but he actually inscribed the German word Märchen over his first essays in the genre, so the idea is as likely to have sprung from German romance as Russian. In any event the title seems to imply no more than a certain narrative element akin to that found in Chopin’s Ballades or Dvorák’s Legends. The English translation ‘Fairy Tales’, which became accepted after Medtner’s first tour in America (1924), is a misnomer, given that their literary or poetic impulse (where disclosed) comes from sources as diverse as Pushkin, Shakespeare and the Bible as well as from Russian folklore. More pertinent is the observation of Medtner’s contemporary Boris Asafyev: ‘These are tales about personal experience, about the conflicts of a man’s inner life.’

A proud and unbending man, Medtner held fast throughout his life to artistic beliefs which were hopelessly at odds with prevailing currents. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss were just a few of his great contemporaries towards whom he expressed scorn bordering on disgust. His book The Muse and Fashion (Edition Tair, Paris, 1935) is largely a polemic against modernism which overshadows its far more valuable insights into his philosophy and creative ideals. Today, as we stand at a lengthening distance from these disputes, Medtner himself stands as an almost heroically independent spirit.

It was Medtner’s lifelong friend and admirer Sergei Rachmaninov who famously remarked: ‘Only Medtner has, from the beginning, published works that it would be hard for him to equal in later life.’ The first pair of Skazki, Op 8, finds Medtner already at the height of his powers. Immediately striking is their use of a common motto to open and close both pieces. This sort of thing raises alarm in the analytically minded but, according to Medtner, is of no great significance; but it does make the pair uncommonly effective when performed in tandem. This idiosyncrasy apart, the two could hardly be more disparate in character. Some dark shadows notwithstanding, the first, alternately gnomic and lyrical, does nothing to forewarn us of the violence to follow. This second piece, Op 8 No 2, is one of Medtner’s masterpieces, a sonata movement of formidable complexity and panache. All his prodigious and precocious skills of form and content, rhythm and harmony, motif and melody are displayed with flawless mastery and pianistic ingenuity. Some of the expression marks—pleading, chaotic, suffocated, threatening—suggest (unusually for Medtner) an almost Scriabinesque frenzy. This was as ‘modern’ as he ever got—and at twenty-five years of age.

There is no literary clue as to what prompts the desperate anxiety of Op 9 No 1. Periodically, spiteful staccato interruptions with a rhythmically dislocated counterpoint seem more a prophetic tribute than a repudiation of his future nemesis Prokofiev. The second Skazka in this opus—alla serenata, Spanish with a Russian accent—has a restless air on account of its swaying accompaniment and displaced melodic accentuation, whereas the third, a brief pastoral idyll—Allegretto vivo, odoroso (odoroso meaning ‘fragrant’)—is explained by Medtner’s admission that he was inspired here by Goethe’s sentimental lyric Gleich und Gleich:

Ein Blumenglöckchen
Vom Boden hervor
War früh gesprosset
In lieblichem Flor;
Da kam ein Bienchen
Und naschte fein:—
Die müssen wohl beide
Für einander sein.
A little bud
with a lovely blossom
sprang early
from the ground;
along came a little bee
and sipped delicately:—
they must have been made
for each other.

The Op 14 pair opens with a Shakespearean tale (Ophelia’s Song). Its Dorian modality lends an air of antiquity; nevertheless it is a Russian Ophelia who sings here. It was originally conceived as a violin piece for Alexander Medtner, the composer’s brother, but its consistently pure three- and four-part harmony suggests a string quartet (for which sketches also exist). Which of the songs and fragments of ill-fated Ophelia was the source of this tale is not specified. Op 14 No 2 (March of the Paladin) is a rhythmical and contrapuntal tour de force, fizzing with all manner of canons and thematic combinations: one of Medtner’s forays (probably Pushkin-inspired) into the realm of medieval chivalry.

Play ‘… as if appealing to someone with a fervent entreaty’ was how Medtner advised his pupil Edna Iles to approach Op 20 No 1, an outpouring of world sorrow with an overwhelming climax marked con disperazione. Its companion, Op 20 No 2 (Campanella), a doom-laden tale of pile-driving rhythms and relentless fatalism, is so far from the tintinnabulations of Liszt/Paganini that one of its finest exponents, Boris Berezovsky, likens its ‘riffs’ to hard rock. Medtner insists that it should be played absolutely without rubato and adds, in a footnote, that it should be regarded not as a tale about a bell but as one told by a bell, in whose chime ‘can be heard calamity and terror’. The multi-talented Leonid Sabaneiev likened Medtner in this mood to ‘a gnome, a Nibelung seeking refuge in the dark fissures of the earth’, a description that would not have displeased the composer who insisted that artists must ‘earn their works by hard labour, like miners, and not try to pluck them like flowers by the wayside’.

Sunnier moods prevail in the Op 26 set. The tranquillity of the first piece is disturbed by nothing more alarming than the chirping of a bird, while the second unleashes a brief eruption of exuberance and laughter. Then comes a gently melancholic soliloquy with, perhaps, a touch of world-weariness which persists in the main theme of the fourth piece, albeit here punctuated by bursts of impish humour.

Between the two sets Opp 26 and 34 come two isolated Skazki: the enigmatic and bi-polar Op 31 No 3 which oscillates disturbingly between lassitude and manic energy, even anger; and then the only Skazka without opus number, now known as ‘1915’, the year of its publication. When asked why he had assigned no opus number to this enigmatic miniature, Medtner replied: ‘It is of no importance.’ There are ample grounds for disagreement since it represents in its compression and organization a kind of microcosm of Medtner’s art. Its thirty-four bars encompass two double-barrelled themes, a thoroughly worked development, a clearly defined climax and coda.

Medtner sustained an extraordinary degree of invention, variety, craftsmanship, and sheer musical worth throughout the entire collection, but perhaps the set of four Skazki Op 34 can be singled out for special acclaim. Not only does it exemplify all the qualities already mentioned but it offers an additional fascination in that Medtner was here unusually forthcoming in divulging his literary sources.

To Op 34 No 1 he gave the title The Magic Violin. Although unattributed in the score, it seems likely that this comes from a poem of the same name by Nikolai Gumilev (1886–1921) in which the poet implores a child not to succumb to the seductive violin which will unleash all kinds of horrors upon him through its magic. Certainly, the sinuous lines of the recurring waltz-theme and the increasingly violent interludes seem in tune with this supposition. Although Medtner described Op 34 No 2 to friends as ‘a tale told by a river bank’ (easily discernible in the rippling currents of the left hand), by quoting from Tyutchev’s mystical poem Peace (‘… what we once called ours is gone for ever’), he suggests deeper thoughts about the ephemerality of existence, no less. Above Op 34 No 3, Medtner simply wrote ‘Wood spirit (but a kind, plaintive one)’. According to his Canadian pupil and disciple Bernard Pinsonneault he amplified this, saying with a smile: ‘He’s a highly capricious sorcerer who does a thousand magic tricks, conjures up all kind of strange creatures and launches multicoloured arabesques from his fingers; he’s a grimacing sorcerer but … he is never wicked.’ His grimaces reveal that the gulf between Medtner and Prokofiev was not as wide as either of them imagined. Op 34 No 4 bears a quotation from Pushkin: ‘… there lived once a poor knight’. Pushkin’s poem has a special resonance in the Russian psyche. Friends relate that Dostoyevsky had tears in his eyes when reading it to his children and it has been often cited as the inspiration for Prince Mishka in his novel The Idiot. Jungians interpret the character as a prototype of the creative artist, others as anti-hero. The poem tells of a knight in Palestine who worships the Virgin Mary, renouncing not only all other women but also the Holy Trinity. When, on his deathbed many years later, he is about to be dragged to hell by demons for this blasphemy, the Blessed Virgin herself intervenes and bears him aloft. The music is of an extraordinarily exalted piety and, at the moment of his transfiguration, truly inspirational, as its sombre strains transmute into a radiant D major melange of prayers, bells and angel trumpets. At this point Medtner confessed to being inspired by the sublime transition from the desolation of the Largo e mesto in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 10 No 3 to the sunlit D major of the succeeding Menuetto.

Op 35 No 1 opens in ceremonial style with the velvety sonority of a brass ensemble. What follows is a hymn of faith, doubt and salvation: a ‘Hosanna’ was the terse description of the religious and political philosopher Ivan Ilyin. The prancing whimsicality of Op 35 No 2 is enlivened by choleric interjections in its middle section and, while Op 35 No 3 may not be among the finest tales, its evocation of a time beyond memory is entirely Medtnerian and, by virtue of its modal austerity and evolving narrante style, far removed from the numerous confections ‘in ancient style’ of more sentimental romantics. A quotation from the storm scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear heads the score of Op 35 No 4 and says all that needs to be said (‘Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!’), its tumultuous rise and fall evoking both the fury of the storm and the rage of the demented monarch.

Appropriately, the ‘Russian Tale’ Op 42 No 1 of 1921 was the last to be composed in Russia. After his emigration to the West, Medtner’s fortunes were generally in decline, apart from his one triumphant return to his homeland in 1927 and a flurry of belated excitement in his last years occasioned by the sponsorship by the Maharajah of Mysore of many recordings, by which time the composer was in failing health. The remaining pieces in the set were composed in France and it is tempting but perhaps too simple to detect a whiff of Fauré or early Debussy in the delicate Op 42 No 2 (‘Phrygian Mode’), a fluttering web of evanescent moods and passion. The two main themes of Op 42 No 3 seem to bring together felicitously the character of the two preceding Skazki; the first sombre and melancholy (quasi violoncello solo) metamorphoses (poco a poco) into a glinting scherzando. The whole meticulously fashioned movement ends entirely logically in a splendidly obstreperous coda, as if slamming the book shut.

The first of the two Skazki Op 48, a bucolic pageant of stamping and conflicting dance rhythms, seems to have been a favourite of the composer who often used it to end his recitals in the late 1920s and 1930s. The second theme (imitating fifes and drums) is ingeniously transformed in the central ‘trio’ section into a lurching march of Bruegel-ish grotesquerie. An orchestration by Medtner’s brother Alexander exists in the Glinka Archive in Moscow but seems never to have been performed. Its picturesque character notwithstanding, this is evidently the work of one well acquainted with Beethoven’s scherzos.

The English nomenclature ‘Fairy Tale’ is perhaps appropriate for once to the Op 51 set, given its dedication to ‘Zolushka (Cinderella) and Ivan the Fool’. And some sort of sorcery is clearly afoot in the incantational monotone of the No 4’s main theme (sostenuto, magico). According to programme notes for Medtner’s recital at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in 1930: ‘In the first tale the characters are introduced, the second is a song of Cinderella, the last a dance of the Fool.’ This being so, the stuttering introduction to Ivan’s dance may be a rare instance in Medtner of onomatopoeic musical representation! Ivan Ilyin, unsurprisingly, surmises that a lofty symbolism and idealism lie behind the naive exterior. It was this set which prompted a delighted Rachmaninov to exclaim ‘No one tells such Tales as Kolya’, after Medtner played them at a private gathering. The ebullience of Ivan’s dance belies the increasing depression of the composer, by now living in France in near poverty. His despondency is revealed in a letter to the singer Tatiana Makushina: ‘I have a horrible feeling that this whole story will turn out to be another fairy tale about ‘Ivan the Fool’ who I have already proved myself to be so many times in my life.’

The Romantic Sketches for the Young Op 54 were composed in response to a plea for something ‘of moderate difficulty’ from Medtner’s German publisher, who had been hesitant in taking the huge commercial risk of publishing the massive Sonatas romantica and minacciosa (Op 53 Nos 1 and 2) in view of the volatile inflation prevalent at the time (1932). Medtner rather huffily obliged with four new Skazki, each preceded by a Prelude. Despite the imposed restrictions, Medtner found something unique to say in each piece. Especially worthy to sit beside their adult counterparts are the radiant Hymn (in C major in common with his other works with overtly religious connotations) and its companion The Beggar. The gentle rain which descends from the top of the keyboard towards the Hymn’s close seems to combine a poetic purpose with a didactic one since the white-note figuration has a feel of a keyboard exercise. The lamentations of the Skazka evoke that mixture of pity and contempt meted out to beggars and other unfortunates in nineteenth-century Russian literature. The Beggar was to be the last Skazka for solo piano, but the story does not quite end there, for the Two Pieces for two pianos, Op 58, are also Skazki, and one could argue that the third Piano Concerto, Op 60 (after Lermontov’s poem Rusalka), is the grandest Skazka of all.

It would be pointless to list the first performances of these works since they were invariably given by the composer and mostly in Russia. The indispensable source for these statistics and much else is Christoph Flamm’s voluminous and masterly Der russische Komponist Nikolaj Metner (Verlag Ernst Kuhn, Berlin, 1995), while Barrie Martyn’s engaging biography Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music (Scolar Press, Menston (Yorkshire), 1995) will guide the interested listener through the often mundane events of his day-to-day life.

The Skazki, even in their entirety, cannot be said to represent the whole man, but all the features are there which have made Medtner the enigma he remains, hailed by some as a twentieth-century master, dismissed by others as an anachronism and simply ignored by the many. I stand with conviction in the first camp and passionately endorse Rachmaninov’s assessment that ‘he is one of those rare people—as a musician and a human being—who grows in stature as one knows him better’. That he has not attracted the esteem he merits is not so much due to his conservatism, which itself has been carelessly misunderstood, but in the psychological foibles of his character which act against him to this day. That his music sits uneasily among that of the turbulent times in which he lived is self-evident, but his loyalty to his own convictions was every bit as tenacious and dedicated as that of, say, Bartók, Hindemith or Schoenberg. There are many anecdotes about his tireless quest for perfection—that he composed ‘more with the eraser than the pencil’, that themes could lie dormant for forty years before they ‘found their destiny’. This, allied to his restless poetic imagination, makes him a uniquely lucid purveyor of dreams.

There is no doubt that he was in the end a very disappointed man. It was not the ridicule of the modernists that he felt most bitterly, but the sheer indifference of the world at large. Yet he never took steps to promote his work outside the confined circle of his own admirers. From the earliest years he felt born to compose: everything else—teaching, rehearsals, mundane business affairs—simply got in the way. He confessed himself convinced by the contention that the urge towards artistic creation stems from man’s recognition of his individuality as a prison from which he can escape only by reaching out to the hidden sensibilities of his fellow men, and this was both his burden and his driving force. Other factors which probably contributed to his reclusiveness were his rootlessness after his departure from Russia, which he thought of as home until he died, and the unusual personal relationships between him, his devoted wife Anna and his elder brother Emil which only came into the public domain with the publication of Magnus Ljunggren’s The Russian Mephisto: A Study of the Life and Work of Emilii Medtner (Almqvist and Wiksell, Stockholm, 1994).

After a Medtner recital in 1916 a leading contemporary critic, Grigori Prokofiev, observed that ‘the composer’s eyes were set on such far distant places’ that few would be able to follow him there. It is surely time to abandon the argument whether his gaze was backward or forward and to accord him the more highly prized epithet—timeless.

Hamish Milne © 2007

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