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Medtner, Nikolai (1880-1951)

Nikolai Medtner

born: 5 January 1880
died: 13 November 1951
country: Russia

When one considers the life of Nikolai Karlovich Medtner it is impossible not to be amazed by his strange, tragic and yet marvellous destiny. He was recognized in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century as one of the most important composers and was, with Scriabin and Rachmaninov, an extremely influential, almost ‘cult’ figure for a whole generation of the Russian intellectual élite. He was also a great pianist and an outstanding musical thinker. His personality was completely divorced from everyday life, but the depth and power of his intellect, entirely absorbed in music, philosophy and the history of culture, were deeply respected by such contemporaries as Nikisch, Rachmaninov, Furtwängler, Koussevitsky, Glazunov and Prokofiev. There is thus something of a paradox in the fact that for the last thirty years of his life, when he lived in the West, he remained practically unknown to the general public and spent most of his life in abject poverty.

His music is the subject of a similar paradox. More than half a century of composing saw his style change remarkably little; critical reaction, however, differed wildly. Some thought of him as an innovator where others considered him an arch-conservative. Some felt he was the heir to the great Germanic tradition, while others spoke of his Russian soul and his ability to capture in his music the atmosphere of Russia at the turn of the century. It would seem, then, that neither the composer’s personality nor his musical style can be analysed within the limits of a single tradition, be this even the rich tradition of a Russia or Germany. This ambivalence stems from Medtner’s own origins. Since Peter the Great had, in the words of Pushkin, ‘opened a window into Europe’, thousands of foreigners had been living in Russia. This strange community, which juxtaposed European roots with the changing environment of Russia, formed a unique part of Russian life and produced many remarkable figures—men of art, science and politics.

Medtner’s ancestors probably left Germany in the eighteenth century, and he was born in Moscow. Both his personality and his music evince a combination of Germanic tendency to weighty philosophizing and typically Moscovite spirit. The beginning of Medtner’s artistic activity came at a time which many consider to have been one of the high points in the history of Russian culture. This era is known as the Silver Age, or the Russian Renaissance. At the turn of the century the arts, music and philosophy were flourishing in Russia; the revolution of 1917 brought this unique period to an end. Like Scriabin and Rachmaninov, Medtner expressed the raw nerve of this momentous time: his contemporaries noted the ‘psychologically intense, demonic’ character of his music. Yet the composer used the ‘eternal laws of music’ alongside these more elusive, transient and indefinable principles. Much later, in 1930, in his book Muse and Mode he analysed with scientific precision the basic elements of the language of music (melody, harmony, rhythm), interpreting them in the spirit of the classical tradition of the nineteenth century and repudiating the whole development of modern music. Thus Medtner’s music is not easy to understand because of its complicated combination of entirely different elements: the fusion of German roots and Russian spirit, the quest for new musical expression and dedicated conservatism, a rare intelligence and almost childlike naïvety.

What was the genesis of Medtner’s style? He considered himself a follower of Beethoven and the best of his work reflects the great polyphonic skill, the detailed development of short compact motifs, and the severe spirit and concentrated depth of the late Beethoven sonatas. No less important for Medtner was German Romanticism in general and Schumann’s legacy in particular. Goethe (with whom Medtner’s great-grandfather was acquainted) was a permanent source of inspiration for him. Medtner was often compared with Brahms and there are indeed comparisons to be made: the deep seriousness of his music, some of the special harmonic features, the interest in intricate cross-rhythms, and piano-writing. Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to consider him neo-Brahmsian. Medtner never imitated anybody and was, moreover, not noted for his interest in Brahms’s music. The similarities are rather the result of their independent development of the commonly inherited Romantic tradition.

Comparison of Medtner and Rachmaninov is more justifiable. They were great friends for most of their lives and they influenced each other in many ways. Medtner was enchanted by the beauty of Rachmaninov’s melodies and Rachmaninov was highly impressed by Medtner’s quest for new harmonies and rhythms. It is significant that Rachmaninov dedicated to Medtner his Fourth Piano Concerto, the most explicit instance of this mutual inspiration.

The best of Medtner’s music represents something very special, and it is unmistakable: the melodies and harmonies are inimitable in the way they are drawn from the piano, an instrument cherished by Medtner as much as by Chopin. Today, forty years after Medtner’s death, we see that the heroic, self-sacrificing work to which he devoted his whole life was not in vain. His music, imbued with the strength of his powerful spirit and the beauty he believed in, is discovering a new life.

from notes by Dmitri Alexeev 1994

Albums

Medtner & Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas
Studio Master: CDA67936Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Medtner: Arabesques, Dithyrambs, Elegies & other short piano works
CDA67851/22CDs
Medtner: Demidenko plays Medtner
CDH55315Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Medtner: Forgotten Melodies
CDA67578
Medtner: Music for two pianos
CDH55337Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Medtner: Piano Concerto No 1 & Piano Quintet
CDA66744
Medtner: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
CDA66580
Medtner: Skazki
CDA67491/22CDs Archive Service
Medtner: The Complete Piano Sonatas
CDA67221/44CDs for the price of 3
Medtner: Violin Sonatas Nos 1 & 3
Studio Master: CDA67963Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Marc-André Hamelin live at Wigmore Hall
CDA66765
Pushkin Romances
CDA67773
Rachmaninov & Medtner: Piano Sonatas
Studio Master: CDA67936Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Russian Images, Vol. 1
CDA67105
Russian Images, Vol. 2
CDA67205
The Composer-Pianists
CDA67050Archive Service
Hyperion monthly sampler – September 2014
FREE DOWNLOADHYP201409Download-only monthly sampler

Complete works available for download

Drei Arabesken, Op 7Hamish Milne (piano)
Drei Dithyramben, Op 10Hamish Milne (piano)
Drei Hymnen an die Arbeit, Op 49Hamish Milne (piano)
Drei Novellen, Op 17Hamish Milne (piano)
Étude in C minorHamish Milne (piano)
Nezhdannyi dozhd' 'Unexpected rain', Op 28 No 1Vassily Savenko (bass), Alexander Blok (piano)
Piano Concerto No 1 in C minor, Op 33Dmitri Alexeev (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 50Nikolai Demidenko (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Jerzy Maksymiuk (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 3 in E minor, Op 60Nikolai Demidenko (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Jerzy Maksymiuk (conductor)
Piano Quintet in C major, Op posth.Dmitri Alexeev (piano), New Budapest Quartet
Quatre morceaux, Op 4Hamish Milne (piano)
Romantic Sketches for the Young, Op 54Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazka '1915'Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 14Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 20Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 20Steven Osborne (piano)
Skazki, Op 26Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 34Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 35Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 42Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 48Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 51Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 8Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Skazki, Op 8Hamish Milne (piano)
Skazki, Op 9Hamish Milne (piano)
Sonata in A minor, Op 30Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata in B flat minor 'Sonata Romantica', Op 53 No 1Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata in B flat minor 'Sonata Romantica', Op 53 No 1Steven Osborne (piano)
Sonata in E minor 'Night Wind', Op 25 No 2Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata in F minor 'Sonata Minacciosa', Op 53 No 2Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata in F minor, Op 5Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata in G minor, Op 22Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata-Ballada in F sharp major, Op 27Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonata-Skazka in C minor, Op 25 No 1Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonate-Idylle in G major, Op 56Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonaten-Triade, Op 11Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Stimmungsbilder, Op 1Hamish Milne (piano)
Sumerki 'Twilight', Op 24 No 4Vassily Savenko (bass), Alexander Blok (piano)
Theme and variations in C sharp minor, Op 55Hamish Milne (piano)
Theme and variations in C sharp minor, Op 55Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
Trois Improvisations, Op 2Hamish Milne (piano)
Trois morceaux, Op 31Hamish Milne (piano)
Two Pieces, Op 58Dmitri Alexeev (piano), Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
Vergessene Weisen 'Forgotten Melodies', Op 38Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Vergessene Weisen 'Forgotten Melodies', Op 39Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Vesenneye uspokoyeniye 'Spring Solace', Op 28 No 5Vassily Savenko (bass), Alexander Blok (piano)
Vier Lyrische Fragmente, Op 23Hamish Milne (piano)
Violin Sonata No 1 in B minor, Op 21Chloë Hanslip (violin), Igor Tchetuev (piano)
Violin Sonata No 3 in E minor 'Sonata Epica', Op 57Chloë Hanslip (violin), Igor Tchetuev (piano)
Ya perezhil svoi zhelan'ya 'I have outlived my aspirations', Op 3 No 2Vassily Savenko (bass), Alexander Blok (piano)
Zaklinaniye 'Invocation' 'The call', Op 29 No 7Vassily Savenko (bass), Alexander Blok (piano)
Zwei Elegien, Op 59Hamish Milne (piano)

Alphabetical listing of all musical works

6 Stikhotvoreniy A Pushkina '6 Pushkin Poems', Op 36 (Medtner)
6 Stikhotvoreniy Pushkina '6 Pushkin Poems', Op 32 (Medtner)
7 Stikhotvoreniy Pushkina '7 Pushkin Poems', Op 29 (Medtner)
Alla Reminiscenza: Quasi coda  
Am Amboss: Allegro, molto pesante e poco rubato  
Bird's Tale: Allegretto con moto capriccioso e sempre leggiero  
Campanella: Pesante, minaccioso  
Canzona fluviala: Allegretto con moto  
Canzona matinata in G major: Allegretto cantando, ma sempre con moto  
Canzona serenata in F minor: Moderato  
Caprice: Allegretto capriccioso  
Dance Tale: Allegro risoluto  
Danza festiva: Presto  
Danza graziosa: Con moto leggiero  
Danza rustica: Allegro commodo  
Danza silvestra  
Daphnis und Chloe: Andante  
Drei Arabesken, Op 7 (Medtner)
Drei Dithyramben, Op 10 (Medtner)
Drei Hymnen an die Arbeit, Op 49 (Medtner)
Drei Novellen, Op 17 (Medtner)
Ein Idyll: Allegretto tranquillo e dolce  
Eine Ball-Reminiscenz: Schwärmend  
Étude in C minor (Medtner)
Étude: Allegro assai  
Gde nasha roza 'Where is our rose'  
Hymn 'Prelude': Allegretto tranquillo  
Improvisation: Andantino, gracile  
Knight Errant  
Lish' rozï uvyadayut 'When roses wither'  
March of the Paladin: Allegro marciale  
Marche funèbre: Andante lugubre  
Meditazione: Introduzione, quasi Cadenza – Meno mosso – Meditamente  
Mogu l zabït to sladkoye mgnovenye 'Could I ever forget that delightful moment'  
Moment musical: Agitato  
Muza 'The muse'  
Nach der Arbeit: Allegro vivace  
Nezhdannyi dozhd' 'Unexpected rain', Op 28 No 1 (Medtner)
Nixe 'Rusalka': Veloce  
Ophelia's Song: Andantino con moto  
Pastoral 'Prelude': Allegretto con moto abbandonamente  
Phrygian Mode: Con moto disinvolto et grazioso  
Piano Concerto No 1 in C minor, Op 33 (Medtner)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 50 (Medtner)
Piano Concerto No 3 in E minor, Op 60 (Medtner)
Piano Quintet in C major, Op posth. (Medtner)
Prélude: Allegro appassionato  
Primavera: Vivace  
Quatre morceaux, Op 4 (Medtner)
Romantic Sketches for the Young, Op 54 (Medtner)
Romanza: Meditamente  
Roza 'The rose'  
Russian Round-Dance 'A Tale'  
Russian Tale: Allegro sostenuto  
Scherzo infernale: Prestissimo possibile  
Skazka '1915' (Medtner)
Skazka: Allegretto capriccioso, con molto tenerezza  
Skazki, Op 14 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 20 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 26 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 34 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 35 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 42 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 48 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 51 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 8 (Medtner)
Skazki, Op 9 (Medtner)
Sonata in A flat major  
Sonata in A minor, Op 30 (Medtner)
Sonata in B flat minor 'Sonata Romantica', Op 53 No 1 (Medtner)
Sonata in C major  
Sonata in D minor 'Sonata-Elegy'  
Sonata in E minor 'Night Wind', Op 25 No 2 (Medtner)
Sonata in F minor 'Sonata Minacciosa', Op 53 No 2 (Medtner)
Sonata in F minor, Op 5 (Medtner)
Sonata in G minor, Op 22 (Medtner)
Sonata tragica in C minor: Allegro risoluto  
Sonata-Ballada in F sharp major, Op 27 (Medtner)
Sonata-Reminiscenza in A minor: Allegretto tranquillo  
Sonata-Skazka in C minor, Op 25 No 1 (Medtner)
Sonate-Idylle in G major, Op 56 (Medtner)
Sonaten-Triade, Op 11 (Medtner)
Stimmungsbilder, Op 1 (Medtner)
Sumerki 'Twilight', Op 24 No 4 (Medtner)
Tale of the Elves: Con moto flessibile  
Tender Reproach 'Prelude': Allegretto, molto tranquillo e commodo  
The Beggar 'Tale': Narrante  
The Magic Violin: Tempo cangiando, abbandonamente  
The Organ Grinder 'Tale': Allegro assai  
Theme and variations in C sharp minor, Op 55 (Medtner)
Tragoedie-Fragment in A minor: Andantino con moto  
Tragoedie-Fragment in G minor: Allegro inquieto ma al rigore di tempo  
Trois Improvisations, Op 2 (Medtner)
Trois morceaux, Op 31 (Medtner)
Two Pieces, Op 58 (Medtner)
V mladenchestve moyom ona menya lyubila 'When I was a child she loved me'  
Vals 'The waltz'  
Vergessene Weisen 'Forgotten Melodies', Op 38 (Medtner)
Vergessene Weisen 'Forgotten Melodies', Op 39 (Medtner)
Vesenneye uspokoyeniye 'Spring Solace', Op 28 No 5 (Medtner)
Vier Lyrische Fragmente, Op 23 (Medtner)
Violin Sonata No 1 in B minor, Op 21 (Medtner)
Violin Sonata No 3 in E minor 'Sonata Epica', Op 57 (Medtner)
Vor der Arbeit: Allegretto molto tranquillo  
Ya perezhil svoi zhelan'ya 'I have outlived my aspirations', Op 3 No 2 (Medtner)
Zaklinaniye 'Invocation' 'The call', Op 29 No 7 (Medtner)
Zwei Elegien, Op 59 (Medtner)
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