The Three Improvisations Op 2 (later called Three Fantastic Improvisations) were published in 1904 and they 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.
from notes by Hamish Milne © 2012