No 1: Prolog: Andante cantabile
No 2: Allegro con impeto
No 3: Maestoso freddo
No 4: Andantino con moto
No 5: Andante
No 6: Allegro con humore
No 7: Allegro con ira
No 8: Allegro con grazia
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’.
from notes by Hamish Milne © 2012