Nikolai Medtner Nikolai Medtner (1880 - 1951)

Robert Rimm
excerpted from the January/February
1999 issue of Piano & Keyboard magazine.

“A feeling of astonishment will beexperienced at music so vital in thought and so striking in sheercreative genius, so long languishing in comparativeneglect.”

These words, indicating an unfortunatemusical breach, could well have spelled out a late 20th-centuryassessment of Nikolai Medtner; they were in fact the influentialBritish magazine Gramophone's pronouncement in 1948, uponthe joint release of seven recordings by The Medtner Society andHMV.

Medtner's star is only now ascendant.His legacy includes – with Beethoven, Schubert and Scriabin– musical history's most substantial body of piano sonatas,justifying Taneyev's prescient observation, “Medtner wasborn with sonata form.” His originality is striking, given acompositional raison d'«tre built upon the harmony andtonality of classical orthodoxy.

Medtner was born in 1880 into a widelycultured Muscovite family, which stimulated lifelong passions forart, literature and music. Young Nikolai Karlovich composedincessantly, and at 12 entered the Moscow Conservatory during itsglory years, later returning as a professor. He achieved thehighest performance honors, joining an elite group includingRachmaninov, Scriabin and LhÝvinne.

Unable to reconcile political events inRussia following the Bolshevik Revolution, Medtner left forEurope in 1921 to further his career; this led to an unforeseenstruggle for recognition and money. A peripatetic existencefollowed, which saw him living with his wife Anna in Germany andFrance, then finally England, whose culture and language headored. Acclaimed during his 1927 Russian tour as a musical icon,Medtner also debuted at Carnegie Hall three years later, playinghis own music with extraordinary success. Sadly, these eventswere not the hoped-for breakthrough, nor could they mask lateradversity. The Second World War, which cut off music royaltiesand performance opportunities, deepened a distress furtherworsened by the onset of heart disease. In one of Medtner's fewgifts of fortune, the Maharajah of Mysore, an ardent admirer,gave him an Indian summer with the creation of the MedtnerSociety and its accompanying recording plans.

Medtner died in 1951, quietlymaintaining – as did a fervent group of supporters –that his life's work would eventually survive the challengesposed by impressionism, modernism and atonality. Nearly half acentury later his conviction is becoming reality; he woulddoubtless have accepted this with a wry Russian sense of ironiya.

Noted historian Dr. Jane Swan, amongMedtner's closest friends together with her late husband Alfred,recently spoke with me about Medtner and his personality. Theprofile that emerged underscored his fun and informality in goodcompany, with a sense of humor as light and whimsical as hismusic is profound and serious. He hated exaggerations andclichÝs, was repulsed by pretentiousness, reserved in crowds andhated the “business” of music.

Medtner played a wide, virtuosorepertoire, but soon eliminated such displays by performing– as had Scriabin before him – mostly and thenexclusively his own compositions. Highly ambitious as a composer,Medtner's unwillingness to play others' music, beyond theoccasional Beethoven sonata or concerto, caused career problemsbut reflected an antiquated Russian trait – latching onto anidea and stubbornly seeing it through, whatever the consequences.

Medtner considered himself Beethoven'sspiritual scion, generally giving more weight in his music to itsempyreal and intellectual impact of his music rather than tosensuality or color. This predisposition contrasts him with othergreat Russians such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The commonperception, though, that Medtner's music follows the Germanclassical idiom of Brahms, Schumann and Reger has become a fashionablecritical handle, giving little service to Medtner's deeplyRussian soul.

Musical history is paved with the gravelof unjust neglect. Bach and Schubert are essentially 20th-centuryrediscoveries, lending precedence to the Medtner case; it is onlymany years after his death that wide attention has focused onthis indelibly inspiring body of music.

A Pianist's Perspective

Marc-AndrÝ Hamelin speaks Medtner'slanguage with an empathy few have equaled. He recently settledinto a conversation about the composer, bearing firm optimismabout Medtner's place in concert life despite a reputation forinaccessibility. “I hope pianists and audiences are finallygetting over the fact that Medtner's music does not often revealits secrets on first hearing. His works also demand considerablecommitment; Rachmaninov's music, for one, is more forgiving of anindifferent performance.”

Hamelin's recording of the completeMedtner sonatas is already perceived as a touchstone in thisrepertoire. He discusses them with singular reverence, and beginswith a prime example. “I deeply admire the `Night Wind'Sonata. One can see the fantastically intricate workmanshipand the lengths Medtner took to make the form as harmoniouslyproportioned as possible. Its natural melodic inversion shows howapparently the driest theoretical processes can bear themost satisfying fruit.” Hamelin finds Rachmaninov'sproffered thoughts about abridging this sonata's length anathemaand asks, “Would you want to cut a loved one's limb?”

The one-movement Sonata minacciosa– which Hamelin found the most physically exhausting torecord – is a work with the proportions and keyrelationships of sonata form, yet the extraordinary harmonicscheme requires closely attentive listening. “The Minacciosacontains some of the most concentrated 15 minutes of music onecould ever hope to play or listen to; its rewards go far beyondinitial impressions.”

Hamelin's communion with the SonataReminiscenza is the result of acute reflection. “Thereare profound emotional worlds in this piece that cannot easily betranslated into words; such music expresses the indefinable.Surprisingly, my first experience with the Reminiscenza wasn'tvery good. I found its structure and ideas weak, but tried again;it did not take more than a week before I needed it everyday.

“I wish more people would do thesame and give Medtner a second chance. I can offer the bestcomparison. One always hears about love at first sight as beingwonderful, but it's not necessarily so. You meet someone, andafter gradually peeling off the layers, discover that this personhas become more and more appealing. Why should all of that happenat once, and how can such complicated responses show themselvesso readily? Known intimately, Medtner's music can become alifelong companion.”

Hamelin demurs when asked to name thosesonatas he favors most. “Each has tremendous merit,and if I had to choose, I would single out all 14.

“In my recordings, I've attemptedto give the strongest first impression for listeners unfamiliarwith the music. Although I don't pretend to have the last word onMedtner, these discs do come from someone who loves his musicpassionately.”

Hamelin concluded, “The especiallystrong audience response to Medtner's music from my recitals indifferent countries justifies a faith that he will endure as oneof the piano repertoire's most significant contributors.”

The above article has been excerptedfrom the January/February 1999 issue of Piano & Keyboardmagazine. ę 1999 Robert Rimm