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Hyperion Records

CDA67578 - Medtner: Forgotten Melodies
CDA67578
Recording details: August 1996
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: May 2006
Total duration: 74 minutes 28 seconds

'I can only agree with the superlatives Hamelin has garnered from so many other reviewers. His technique is unsurpassed by any pianist of any era … he has prepared excellent new editions of both the sonatas and the Forgotten Melodies, several from Medtner manuscripts in his possession. Add to these performances a booklet with an excellent essay by noted Medtner biographer Barrie Martyn and you have a nearly perfect release' (American Record Guide)

'Hamelin's transcendental technique is breathtaking in the bravura numbers, and he is even more compelling in the reflective numbers, such as Two Tales which deserve wide circulation' (The Sunday Times)

'Hamelin's performance captures the changing moods of this unjustly forgotten composer' (Scotland on Sunday)

'Hamelin realizes his conceptions with complete authority from top to bottom and proves that Medtner's phrasings, dynamics and tempo indications need little intervention other than for one to play simply, clearly, and beautifully. That's easier said than done, unless you happen to be Marc-André Hamelin' (ClassicsToday.com)

Forgotten Melodies
Danza silvestra  [3'40]

As a complement to Marc-André Hamelin’s new recording of the Dukas Piano Sonata and Abel Decaux’s Clairs de lune (CDA67513, released this month), we are pleased to offer this single-disc collection of Books 1 and 2 of Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies, taken from the acclaimed four-disc set of Medtner Piano Sonatas (CDA67221/4).


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In the history of Russian music Medtner is a forlorn figure. Despite the plaudits of eminent musicians and critics, and the sometimes fanatical enthusiasm of his devotees, it was Medtner’s fate to remain undiscovered by the musical public at large and forgotten or ignored by all but a small band of enterprising performers. In recent years, however, his star seems at last to have begun to rise.

Medtner’s personality, the circumstances of a difficult life, the spirit of the times in which he lived and the particular nature of his art all contributed to the eclipse of a career which began with the greatest promise. One of the most brilliant piano pupils of the legendary Vasily Safonov at the Moscow Conservatoire (Alexander Scriabin and Josef Lhévinne were two others), Medtner graduated in 1900 with the institution’s Gold Medal and in the same year won an honourable mention in the Anton Rubinstein Competition in Vienna. At this point, on the threshold of a potentially brilliant future as a concert pianist, he peremptorily renounced the career for which his upbringing had prepared him and instead, with the support of his mentor Taneyev, decided to devote himself to composition, an occupation he had practised since infancy but for which he had little formal training. Henceforth his occasional appearances on the concert platform would essentially be showcases for his own works.

Medtner readily found a publisher for his first compositions and in Russia, particularly in Moscow, began to build up a considerable following, his status confirmed by the award of the Glinka Prize in 1909 for three groups of Goethe songs and in 1916 for two of the piano sonatas (Op 25 No 2 and Op 27). In the same period, before the outbreak of the First World War, two other great Moscow composer–pianists, who had graduated from the Conservatoire in the very year in which Medtner had enrolled there and who had already made reputations for themselves abroad, were reaching the peak of their popularity: Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Lacking the mystique of the one and popular appeal of the other, Medtner was from the first overshadowed; outside of Russia his music was virtually unknown.

Then came war and revolution. Unable to reconcile himself to the Bolshevik regime, in 1921 Medtner left Russia, returning only briefly six years later for a triumphant series of concerts. He settled first in Berlin and later in Paris, but made little impression in either capital. Although concert tours of North America in 1924/5 and 1929/30 aroused greater public interest, it was in Britain, which Medtner first visited in 1928, that he found the most responsive audiences outside his homeland and where, in 1935, he was to settle permanently. Throughout, undaunted by difficult, sometimes desperate, circumstances, he continued to pursue his mission as a composer with an almost religious dedication.

Just when Medtner was beginning to establish himself in his new surroundings, the outbreak of the Second World War brought fresh problems, for income from concerts and lessons and royalties from his German publisher both suddenly ceased. In 1940, with the blitz on London, he found sanctuary with friends in Warwickshire, but two years later he was struck down by the first of a series of debilitating heart attacks, which all but brought to an end his concert career, though fortunately not his activity in the recording studio. His final years were brightened by the munificence of the Maharajah of Mysore, under whose patronage he was able to record many of his works for HMV—though even this enterprise proved in some respects to be ill-starred, for the recordings appeared in the dying years of 78s and, with the arrival of long-playing records, soon ceased to be available. None of them was reinstated in the domestic catalogue until recently, and the wider dissemination of his work was further hindered by the notorious elusiveness of copies of the sheet music.

The Medtner cause was not advanced by the composer’s reputation as a prickly musical reactionary. As he made plain in his book The Muse and the Fashion (1935), an expression of his musical creed, he believed in eternal, God-given laws of art enshrined in the music of the masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and above all in the immutable sovereignty of tonality and consonance. The works of his close contemporaries Schoenberg and Stravinsky, even of Reger and Strauss, he viewed as heretical perversions. Yet ironically, though not straying outside its bounds, Medtner employed traditional musical language in a recognizably personal and sometimes forward-looked way (as in his use of unusual metres and cross-rhythms) and his early compositions were stylistically fully abreast of the times. However, he came into the world fully armed as a composer and his style developed remarkably little throughout his career. Thus it became his fate, as time passed, to be marooned in a backwater by the maelstrom of twentieth-century musical history.

Medtner’s musical personality was the product of two cultures: his profoundly Russian character and Moscow musical upbringing were tempered by the Teutonic intellectual inheritance of his family, immigrants from northern Europe several generations before him. Medtner admired Goethe no less than Pushkin; he loved Tchaikovsky but revered Beethoven and Wagner. If in spirit and not infrequently in idiom his music proclaims his Russian nationality, in matters of craftsmanship and musical design his roots can be traced back to the Austro–German classical masters.

As with Chopin and Alkan, the piano was the focus of Medtner’s musical activity. All of his compositions not for piano solo—three concertos, a quintet, works for violin, and 106 published songs—nonetheless contain a part for the instrument. Taneyev was astonished by Medtner’s intuitive grasp of counterpoint and famously described him as being ‘born with sonata form’. The inexhaustible ingenuity with which the composer reveals different facets of his themes through their interplay has, to some, made his music seem unnecessarily complex or ‘academic’, but then Medtner is not for casual listening; his music has a density of thought that demands, and abundantly repays, the familiarity that comes from repeated hearing—the very privilege a recording confers.

From June 1919 until October 1920, seeking refuge from the turmoil of the aftermath of war and revolution, Medtner lived on a friend’s dacha at Bugry, in the remote countryside sixty-five miles south-west of Moscow. Since his earliest days as a composer it had been his habit to jot down in notebooks musical ideas as they came to him; these he kept for possible later use, many of them having long since slipped his memory. At Bugry Medtner went through these notebooks, quarrying the material for three cycles of piano pieces to which he gave the general name Forgotten Melodies, with separate titles for each item in (sometimes errant) Italian. The first and second cycles, recorded here, respectively open and close with a sonata.

The eight pieces of the first cycle are given a certain coherence as a group by a number of thematic cross-references, particularly to the cycle’s motto, the melodically memorable opening paragraph of the single-movement Sonata-Reminiscenza. The ‘recollection’ of the work’s title, perhaps Medtner’s reflection on his own difficult life and imminent departure from his homeland, is a melancholy one. After the exposition of the sonata’s two main subjects, rounded off by the motto theme, the development intensifies the mood of haunted anguish, culminating in two arpeggiate cries of despair. The prevailing gloom is only briefly lifted by a brighter new theme unexpectedly introduced into the recapitulation, after which the motto of recollection is heard once more, bringing the work to a pensive close.

Two dances follow: Danza graziosa, in which the high spirits of the syncopated dance melody are unexpectedly dampened by the stern and very Russian theme of the middle section; and the smiling Danza festiva, said to be an impression of a village festival and possibly inspired by a painting by the Flemish artist Teniers. The same bells that ring out in the opening bars also launch the fourth piece, the plaintive Canzona fluviala (‘River song’), in which there is no obvious connection between content and title beyond the flowing accompaniment.

Danza rustica, with its simple melody over a hypnotic drone bass, seems to evoke a country scene on a lazy summer’s day, while Canzona serenata (‘Night song’), opened and closed by the motto of recollection, is a plangent song, whose vaguely Latin air and consecutive thirds in the harmonization of its melody make it a distant cousin of Mendelssohn’s Venetian gondola song.

In the penultimate piece, Danza silvestra (‘Forest dance’), the gnarled syncopation of the first theme, perhaps conjuring up a picture of malevolent wood-sprites, gives way in the central section to a lyrical dance. At the end, another passing reference to the motto of recollection leads without a pause to Alla Reminiscenza, which rounds off the cycle in a mood of calm detachment with the theme with which it began, now at last in the major key.

The second cycle of Forgotten Melodies consists of five pieces, the first and last pairs linked thematically. The opening Meditazione is one of Medtner’s most potent inventions, a disquieting study of tormented introspection in which tension is relieved only in the very last bars by an unexpected resolution into the major key. The following Romanza is no less disturbing, the same dark brooding transformed into a haunted waltz. Primavera (‘Spring’), on the other hand, proclaims the composer’s exultation in the year’s rebirth. It was completed in March 1920 under the stimulus of the arrival of a Russian spring with its dramatically rapid thaw of snow and bracing air, a time of year Medtner especially loved.

There are hints that Canzona matinata (‘Morning song’), carefree in its outer sections but melancholy in the middle, depicts the morn of life, youth, with its generally sunny but occasionally black moods, in contrast to the struggles and tragedies of later life. The latter theme is implicit in the final work of the cycle, the Sonata tragica, which the composer always insisted should be preceded by a performance of the Canzona matinata. A remarkable intensity of emotion is concentrated in its single movement. Typically for Medtner, the two apparently contrasting main themes, the first tragic and launched by what sounds like a blow of fate, the second consolatory, prove to be one and the same in different guises. In the development there is an almost literal restatement of the sombre central theme from the Canzona matinata but there is little relief. Tension mounts in the recapitulation, and the work moves inexorably towards a devastating coda, which concludes with the blow of fate with which the sonata began.

In 1904 Medtner completed these first two of what was to become his best known and most extensive series of piano miniatures, the Märchen, a German title almost certainly taken from German Romantic poetry where it was used for imaginative tales of every kind. Medtner’s later Märchen were published with the addition of the Russian and French equivalent titles (Skazki and Contes), but the English version, ‘Fairy tales’, which began to be applied only from the time of the composer’s first visit to an English-speaking country (America) in 1924/5, misrepresents the nature of these pieces. It is not just a matter that fairies are conspicuously missing from Russian popular mythology but also that, as the great emotional intensity of the second of the present examples illustrates, the imaginative world Medtner conjures up far transcends mere folklore. As Boris Asafyev remarked: ‘These are not descriptive tales or tales relating adventures of some kind. These are tales about personal experiences, about the conflicts of a man’s inner life.’

The two Op 8 Märchen share the same key (C minor) and some of the same material, most obviously the sequence of five cadential chords with which both pieces open and close. The first has a malevolent air throughout, with the music finally slipping sinisterly away into darkness (‘tenebroso’). The second, a much more complex composition, is cast in sonata form. The opening theme is an example of Medtner’s rhythmic inventiveness, the division of its 8/8 metre into 3, 3, 2 syncopated across the bar line charging it with enormous energy and impetus. This and the plaintive second theme are developed in order to a central climax, the nature of whose culmination is indicated by a sequence of characteristically idiosyncratic expression markings: ‘pregando’ (‘prayerfully’), ‘minaccioso’ (‘threateningly’), ‘soffocando’ (‘as though choking’), and finally ‘haotico’ (‘chaotically’). After the recapitulation a tempestuous coda, rounded off by the introductory cadence, curt and final, completes a composition of extraordinary originality and power, one that utterly confounds the notion of Medtner’s being nothing more than an unregenerative reactionary. No wonder the work was much admired by the young Prokofiev.

Barrie Martyn © 1998

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