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Hyperion Records

CDA67851/2 - Medtner: Arabesques, Dithyrambs, Elegies & other short piano works
Warrior Knights (1881-1898) by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: March 2012
DISCID: 1A12D215
Total duration: 155 minutes 39 seconds


'No pianist has done more for Medtner's reputation than Hamish Milne, and on this two-CD set of shorter works … he tells you that a still neglected and misunderstood composer demands to be heard … Milne, with his awe-inspiring grandeur and eloquence, speaks to you of music which tugs at and haunts the imagination … what wild capering in the Scherzo infernale from Op 2 and how arresting the pianistic layout in the First Improvisation, where Milne far excels Earl Wild's dazzling but musically more superficial reading … Milne's playing will surely make Russians, in particular, listen in awe to such magisterial command and poetic empathy … Hyperion's sound is incomparably superior … surely in the running for instrumental issue of the year' (Gramophone)

'The humorous Dithyramb No 2 is surely a masterpiece, and Milne happily strides its Olympian terrain with unforced richness of tone' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Medtner had a gift for crystallising images within a concise musical frame. There are delights aplenty, and Milne brings out their beguiling expressive range' (The Daily Telegraph)

'As Milne's forthright, utterly secure performances make clear, much of this is strongly characterised music … Milne is a wonderfully persuasive advocate for this distinctive and underrated music; together with his discs of the Skazki, these performances are a fine complement to his earlier survey of the 14 piano sonatas' (The Guardian)

Arabesques, Dithyrambs, Elegies & other short piano works
Maestoso freddo  [2'22]
Andante  [3'14]
Allegro con ira  [1'48]
Tempo giusto  [4'48]
Tempo di Valse  [1'59]
Andante con moto  [8'05]

‘Write one such piece and one can die.’ So pronounced Rachmaninov, no less, after hearing the second of Medtner’s Arabesques. This is just one of the delights in the enticing selection box offered by Hamish Milne, a long-standing and ardent champion of Medtner’s music. These two discs explore the many miniatures—in size though not in ambition—that he wrote throughout his life. The very opening of his Mood Pictures shows a remarkable sophistication for a man barely out of his teens, while the magnificent pair of Elegies forms a fitting conclusion to a set that reminds us that it is sometimes among the ‘miscellaneous’ works that the greatest gems are to be found.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
So far as Nikolai Medtner is known at all to the wider public, it is generally as the composer of thirty-eight Skazki (‘Tales’) for piano solo. Although he did not invent the genre, he was its most prolific exponent, and these pieces have tended to overshadow his substantial output of songs, concertos, chamber music, and the fourteen piano sonatas which surely deserve to be rated alongside the comparable cycles of his compatriots, Scriabin and Prokofiev. Even less well known or appreciated are an equal number of shorter piano pieces with various titles which are gathered together in this collection.

One of the most frequently repeated quotations about Medtner is Rachmaninov’s assertion that only he ‘from the beginning, published works that it would be hard for him to equal in later life’, and this is exemplified by Medtner’s very first published composition, the Prologue (inspired by Lermontov’s poem The Angel) which opens his set of Stimmungsbilder (‘Mood Pictures’) Op 1. Already perfect in form, it achieves a wonderful serenity as it approaches and recedes from its impassioned climax. The poem is worth reproducing in full, since its message lies behind the central tenet of his artistic creed and he used the same text again some thirty-five years later as a preface to his book The Muse and Fashion (Edition Tair, Paris 1935), in which he pleaded for a return to the fundamental natural laws of music as evolved from the ‘primordial song’ of man.

At midnight an angel was crossing the sky,
And quietly he sang;
The moon and the stars and the concourse of clouds
Paid heed to his heavenly song.
He sang of the bliss of the innocent souls
In heavenly gardens above;
Of almighty God he sang out, and his praise
Was pure and sincere.
He bore in his arms a young soul
To our valley of sorrow and tears;
The young soul remembered the heavenly song
So vivid and yet without words.
And long did it struggle on earth,
With wondrous desire imbued;
But none of the tedious songs of our earth
Could rival celestial song.
Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841)

According to Bernard Pinsonneault, Medtner’s Canadian pupil and disciple, the composer only realized some years later ‘to his stupefaction’ that the text of the poem fitted exactly, and completely fortuitously, the rhythm of the melodic line of the Prologue. With only minimal amendment, it was published in a vocal version, Op 1bis.

The remaining pieces in this Op 1 set do not reach or even aspire to this elevated plane: indeed many of them are reworkings of pieces from his early teenage years. However they all reveal qualities of invention and originality which set them poles apart from the plethora of sentimental salon pieces of that era. The violent protestations of No 2 find no comfort and die away to nothing. No 3 (Maestoso freddo) is a march with a hint of menace, while No 4 is a lyrical effusion with touches of the rhythmical sleight of hand which were to become one of Medtner’s trademarks. Another quotation from Lermontov heads No 5 (‘Through swirling snowstorm and roaring wind a distant bell tolls—it is a funeral chime’). The exuberant jollity of No 6 (Allegro con humore) suggests the festivities of a Russian village fair, which feature regularly in Russian music, literature and painting. Some have heard the lurching rhythm of the central section as an incongruous tango, but surely it is more likely a wild Cossack or Gypsy dance. Another typically Medtnerian device makes an early appearance in No 7, the interlocking of dislocated rhythms between the hands. Its mood oscillates between the furious (con ira) and the plaintive. The final piece, on the other hand, is all grace and amiable elegance, its simple message rendered more sophisticated by its rhythmical pattern of eight notes in the right hand against a three-note waltz in the left. Alexander Goldenweiser, only five years older than Medtner but already a voice of some authority by virtue of his connection to Tolstoy, adjudged the opus ‘no tentative experiments but the work of a mature and original talent’.

The Three Improvisations Op 2 (later called Three Fantastic Improvisations) were published a year later (1904) and they too draw to some extent on youthful sketches. The first of these, Rusalka (‘Ondine’ to the French, ‘Nixe’ to the Germans), is based on the legend of the seductive water nymph who lures sailors to their death with her irresistible song, evidently a subject of some fascination for the composer, as he returned to it at greater length in two of his masterpieces, the Second Improvisation (in variation form), Op 47, and the Piano Concerto No 3, Op 60. Its somewhat prolix form and experiments with augmented and whole-tone harmonies are not entirely characteristic and these, together with some Impressionistic brush strokes, even a whiff of eroticism, suggest a passing interest in the current French school which Medtner did not pursue further. The idea of a Reminiscence of a Ball, the second of these Improvisations, was a recurring poetic and literary motif in a more tightly chaperoned age. The poet’s musings are interrupted by snatches of dances and outbursts of passion before subsiding into almost apathetic melancholy. Medtner later revisited this theme with more concision and aplomb in vocal settings of two poems entitled The Waltz, one misattributed to Pushkin, the other by Fet. The title of the third Improvisation, Scherzo infernale, might seem to suggest a Lisztian origin, but the music itself is more evocative of the sinister and mischievous creatures of Russian folklore than of the hell and damnation of Liszt’s ‘Mephisto’ pieces.

The Four Pieces Op 4 were published the same year as Op 2, although the first one had been more or less completed when Medtner was just seventeen years old as Étude rythmique. The swaying 5/8 rhythm of the Caprice (No 2) lends an easy-going grace and charm. Moment musical (No 3, subtitled The Gnome’s Lament) is extraordinarily eventful despite its brevity, and would surely have been called a Skazka had Medtner hit upon this nomenclature a couple of years earlier. The heroic Prélude (No 4) is of particular interest for proclaiming the composer’s German antecedents so blatantly. Medtner hated to be described as anything but Russian through and through, since the family had been in the country for at least three generations but, from time to time and especially in his settings of German poets, his genes shine through. Its language is close to early Richard Strauss (whom Medtner did not admire) but its complete mastery of the keyboard was something which Strauss could never achieve. As the music approaches its climax the performer must project three distinct melodic lines (all in octaves), at the same time sustaining the constant flow of triplets in the accompaniment. Josef Hofmann was particularly taken with this piece and asked Medtner to play it five times consecutively at a private gathering.

With the Three Arabesques Op 7 Medtner’s style and mastery can be said to be truly established. The wistful Idyll (No 1) briefly enjoyed modest popularity as both a concert and a teaching piece. Its gentle melancholy, exquisite harmony and perfection of form are too aristocratic to categorize it as salon music, but it is about as near as Medtner got to that perhaps over-maligned genre. It may have been deemed too slight to be published on its own as there seems no other reason for it to be bundled with the two overwhelming Tragedy Fragments under the absurdly incongruous title Arabesques. It was the first of these two miniature masterpieces, a noble lament, that prompted Rachmaninov to exclaim: ‘Write one such piece and one can die!’ The frenetic opening of the second Tragedy Fragment sets the tone for one of Medtner’s most virtuosic compositions. Densely contrapuntal in texture and never relaxing tension for a moment, it even steps up a gear in the coda to magnificent effect. Completed just before the first abortive Russian revolution of 1905, Medtner retrospectively dubbed it ‘A Presentiment of Revolution’.

It is unclear what Medtner understood by the word ‘Dithyramb’, often said to be a hymn to the Greek gods of wine and fertility, although even classical scholars cannot agree on its precise meaning or evolution. Schiller’s poem with the same title (set by Schubert) is a general paean to the gods, so it is possible that Medtner (well versed in German literature from childhood) took his inspiration from there. From his Three Dithyrambs Op 10, and from the last movement of his Violin Sonata No 1, Op 21 (similarly entitled and marked Festivamente), we can deduce that he thought of it as some kind of solemn ceremony or celebration, almost a ritual, never more so than in the four portentous gong strokes which begin the first piece of Op 10 (Maestoso severamente) and are never far away, either in the foreground or buried in the texture. The second and greatest Dithyramb carries a footnote: ‘In the manner of a sermon, that is of a theme freely interpreted and varied.’ The theme itself is grandiloquent and surprisingly diatonic but the undulating quintuplets and chromatic adventures of the development bring a note of anxiety which is swept away by the return of the main theme decked in resplendent virtuoso garb (grandisonante) and capped by a blistering Prestissimo coda. The third Dithyramb (Andantino innocente), in effect a kind of postlude, is comparatively mild, even pastoral in tone, but still proceeds with a stately tread.

The original title for the three Novellen Op 17 was to be Novelletten, an obvious nod in the direction of Schumann’s Op 21 set. The conflict between the idyllic dream and the struggle of reality was a prominent artistic motif at this time—the so-called Silver Age in Russia. Daphnis and Chloe (No 1) exudes contentment and innocent playfulness, whereas the bellicose No 2, with more than a hint of Polonaise rhythm, has the relentless drive of an army on the march. In the third and most substantial piece the idyll returns in a heightened and more rapturous form, rising to near ecstasy at its conclusion.

The Four Lyrical Fragments Op 23 reveal yet again the sheer variety of Medtner’s invention. All are in minor keys but each occupies its own unique expressive world. Particularly treasurable are the second piece, a bittersweet romance of exquisite delicacy, and the brooding fourth which has so much in common with Medtner’s Pushkin setting Remembrance, Op 32 No 2, that it is easy to conclude that it represents a similar sleepless night of self-recrimination.

The solitary Étude in C minor (in modo antico), without opus number, was Medtner’s contribution to a collection published in 1916 in aid of war victims. Although not of particular importance it has enough energy and rhythmic ingenuity to raise it well above the level of the numerous salon pieces of the period written ‘in ancient style’.

The dedication of the Three Pieces Op 31 to the memory of Alexei Stanchinsky refers most specifically to second piece, the Funeral March for the supremely gifted young composer who had died in 1914 at the age of twenty-six. But the most substantial of the three pieces is the Improvisation in B flat minor (in variation form), subsequently known as the First Improvisation to distinguish it from the Second Improvisation, Op 47, of 1928 (disbarred from this collection on account of its great length.) The twilit theme is quintessentially Medtnerian, of utmost simplicity but rhythmically supple and unpredictable. There follow five variations bursting with fantasy and pianistic ingenuity, at one point breaking into a joyous Russian hymn in B flat major. Medtner’s own performance, recorded under the bizarre patronage of an Indian Maharajah, is one of the finest in that priceless legacy.

No one seems to be sure why Medtner chose Hymnen an die Arbeit (‘Hymns to Toil’, 1926–8) as the title of his Op 49. He was now living in France, but we can certainly discount the idea that it is a socialist slogan in anticipation of his only return to his homeland the following year. It would not be surprising to learn that it came from Goethe (like the title Tragedy Fragments), but there is no evidence for this. Throughout his life Medtner was preoccupied with philosophical and moral dilemmas, so it may simply have sprung from a protestant work ethic (he was brought up as Lutheran but later converted to the Orthodox Church). All three hymns are in C major, often associated with overtly religious themes in Medtner; in fact the first one, calm and devotional, is so diatonic that not a single black key is required on the first page. The second, At the Anvil, is fittingly muscular for the blacksmith’s trade, and the last is jubilant, leaving the piano ringing as only the great pianist-composers could, a vindication of Schoenberg’s famous pronouncement that there was still good music to be written in C major. These Hymns elicited from Rachmaninov a one-word telegram—‘Superb’. (An irrelevant digression: so faithfully did Medtner always finish his piano practice with a C major cadence that his dog learned to recognize it and would thereupon leap up in expectation of a walk.)

The Theme and variations in C sharp minor Op 55 is a kind of pendant to the Romantic Sketches for the Young, Op 54, which the publisher Zimmermann had requested in the hope of generating increased sales for his aloof and recondite protégé. Although Medtner undertook the task with some reluctance, he didn’t stint on his skills of craftsmanship in its execution. The theme is a slightly prim minuet in ‘ancient style’ albeit with a few of the composer’s subtle harmonic twists. The variations follow the classical mould in as much as they clearly trace the melodic and harmonic outline of the theme as a template (as opposed to the more free variations in the two Improvisations, Op 31 No 1 and Op 47). This fastidious approach does not preclude the introduction of a deeper and more philosophical note in an eloquent passacaglia (Variation 5), redolent of the hymns of the Russian Orthodox church which are increasingly evident in Medtner’s later works.

The financial circumstances of the Medtners, who had moved from France to England in 1936, had been far from rosy ever since they left Russia in 1921, but in the early years of the Second World War they reached a new nadir as concerts were cancelled and income from his German publisher ceased to exist. In 1940 they were invited to stay in Warwickshire with the family of his most devoted pupil and champion, Edna Iles, and it was here that he completed his last work for solo piano, the Two Elegies Op 59. It is tempting to speculate that their dire circumstances lie behind the bleak mood of these pieces, which could equally be attributed to the still recent death of his brother Emil. In either case, it would be wise to remember that Medtner worked at the same time on the rumbustious Russian Round-Dance for two pianos, Op 58 No 1, and his radiant and ultimately optimistic Third Piano Concerto, Op 60. As with the two Skazki Op 8, both Elegies open with the same motto theme, but thereafter their mood is somewhat different. The first is an almost unrelieved cry of anguish where even the consolatory second theme is short lived. At its conclusion, the fluttering run (diminuendo) to the top of the keyboard probably depicts the soul leaving the body, much as Alfred Cortot observed at the conclusion of Chopin’s tragic Nocturne in C minor. Its companion, with its trudging gait, suggests a more philosophical world-weariness and even offers a ray of hope with its shining final chord of E flat major. Medtner’s biographer Barrie Martyn rated them ‘among the composer’s finest creations’; certainly they show Medtner at his most deeply expressive, harnessing his by now flawless command of harmony, counterpoint and form with apparently effortless mastery. He once said: ‘Inspiration comes when thought is saturated in emotion, and emotion is imbued with sense.’

Although his life ended in disappointment in terms of recognition and commercial success, by this reckoning it could be judged a triumph. Over the years, Medtner’s devotees have often claimed that his day will come and, in the last two decades, there have been encouraging signs that this day may have dawned. Even so, it may well be that these miscellaneous pieces will always lag behind the Skazki and sonatas in exposure and popularity. Both academics and the public have developed a fondness for the ‘canons’ of the life work of composers. If this blinds us to the rich byways and tributaries of their output because we cannot neatly categorize them, we shall be a lot poorer for it.

Hamish Milne © 2012

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