Notes and Editorial Reviews
R.A.H. began Fanfare’s very first Medtner review with some information about the composer, continuing ruefully: “I will consider the millennium to have arrived when I no longer feel compelled to preface the notice of a Medtner composition or performance . . . with such background material”. His frustration made sense: there were only four or so Medtner LPs listed in the September 1978 Schwann. Fortunately, since then the millennium has arrived—and Medtner the composer is pretty much a part of the standard repertoire, even if he’s nowhere near the center. As I write, there are 71 CDs devoted entirely or partly to his music listed on the ArkivMusic site—and reviewers no longer have to launch their notices by explaining that Medtner was really
not “the Russian Brahms,” much less that he was really not diluted Rachmaninoff.
But while Medtner the composer has come into his own, Medtner the performer remains almost unknown except to specialists: he’s not even mentioned among the major pianists in David Dubal’s The Art of the Piano, although he does, of course, get notice as a composer. One can only hope that APR’s release of his complete published and unpublished solo piano recordings—of which this is the third and final volume—can help remedy that failure of appreciation. Granted, these particular recordings (all made in 1947, when the composer was ailing) don’t offer a great deal of superficial dazzle: you won’t hear either the power or the precision served up on Hamelin’s magnificent set of the sonatas. But despite a few smudgy edges in some more bravura outbursts (there’s a bit of scramble in the coda to the first moment of the Sonata-Ballade), despite a few passages when the rhythmic focus could be sharper, these are consistently revelatory readings.
In the hands of lesser pianists, Medtner’s music can sound vague in direction and undifferentiated in sound—one reason why his music was slow to catch on. In these performances, in contrast, there’s always a clear profile and a clear sense of the underlying tensions that fuel both its beauty and its structures. In part, the intelligibility comes from the wide range of personality Medtner summons up, both among and within pieces. He can be implacable (try his relentless reading of the Arabesque—a work that hardly delivers what its title seems to promise); but his playing can be refreshingly light as well (note the bounce that he gives to some of the most complex fugal passages in the finale of the Sonata-Ballade), and he’s capable of a vertiginous measure-to-measure play in mood. But what’s even more striking to me is the way that Medtner brings out his music’s stylistic ambivalence, its uneasy fusion of the modernist and the romantic. These performances are marked by an unfailing intellectual rigor: note the obsessive quality to his searing performance of the Novelle (previously unissued) and his superb handling of counterpoint throughout. At the same time, however, Medtner subtly coaxes out its yearning through his plaint phrasing, through his careful attention to the weight of the harmonies (try the beginning of the Sonata-Ballade’s second movement), and most of all through his ability to bring out the melodic lines without shortchanging the opulent elaboration that gives them their almost decadent character. These are, in other words, performances that celebrate the music’s aesthetic riches—and they reward repeated listening. APR’s reprocessing is excellent, and the notes—by Medtner-expert Barrie Martyn—are first-rate. Enthusiastically recommended.
Peter J. Rabinowitz, FANFARE
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