Medtner’s Songs Brilliantly Performed on New CD

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MEDTNER: 3 Romances, Op. 3 Nos. 1 & 2. 5 9 Goethe-Lieder, Op. 6 Nos. 1-6.6, 4, 2, 5 Winter Evening.5 Epitaph.2 12 Goethe-Lieder, Op. 15 Nos. 1, 3, 6-8.6, 2, 4 6 Gedichte von Goethe, Op. 18 Nos. 4-6.2, 4, 6 8 Gedichte, Op. 24 Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7.5, 1, 2, 3 7 Gedichte, Op. 28 Nos. 1-3, 6.5, 2, 6 7 Songs after Pushkin, Op. 29 Nos. 2, 3, 6, 7.1, 6 6 Pushkin Poems, Op. 32 Nos. 1, 4, 5.5, 3 6 Songs after Pushkin, Op. 36 Nos. 1-4, 6.3, 1 Sleeplessness.2 5 Poems of Tyutchev, Op. 37 Nos. 2 & 4.1 4 Lieder, Op. 45 Nos. 1, 2, 4. 3, 2 7 Lieder, Op. 46 Nos. 2, 4, 5.1, 6, 4 7 Songs after Pushkin, Op. 52 Nos. 2 & 6.1, 3 8 Hinterland Lieder, Op. 61 Nos. 1, 3, 4, 6.4, 3, 3, 5 / 1Ekatarina Siurina, sop; 2Justina Gringyte, mezzo; 3Oleksiy Palchykov, 4Robin Tritschler, ten; 5Rodion Pogossov, bar; 6Nikolay Didenko, bass; Iain Burnside, pn / Delphian DCD 34177

It’s funny how certain composers of the past seem to creep up on you out of nowhere to suddenly become known and respected after years of neglect. True, there are still some who haven’t been so lucky, among them Karol Rathaus, Szymon Laks and Julián Carrillo, but in the past decade we’ve suddenly come to think of such formerly ignored composers as Miecyzław Weinberg, Nikolai Kapustin, Florent Schmitt, Erwin Schulhoff and Charles Koechlin as part of the repertoire whereas previously they were “niche” composers only known to a handful of cognoscenti. Lately Kaikhosru Sorabji and Nikolai Medtner have made large strides in that direction as well, thus we have here a collection of more than half of his song output in a handy 2-CD set.

This collection was the brainchild of pianist Iain Burnside, who according to the brief notes I’ve seen selected both the repertoire and the specific singers for this set. I’ve tried as much as possible to indicate the singers of each song in the header above by listing the footnote to their names in the order in which they appear. None of these singers were known to me, and I doubt that many people besides their parents, friends and personal managers may actually know who they are. The first voice up, and in fact the one that gets the most material on this set, is that of baritone Rodion Pogossov. Like so many of our modern singers, he has a noticeable flutter to his voice that borders on a wobble or judder, but he has many assets, among them a voice that is strong in every register, excellent control of dynamics, great emotion in his interpretations and, bless his heart, perfect diction—all necessary qualities to bring out the depth of feeling that Medtner put into his songs. And the music itself is terrific: somewhat reminiscent of the songs of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, but with more unusual melodic lines tailored more specifically to the flow of the words and, for those who pay attention to such things, far more complex accompaniments. Thus when performing Medtner, you need a really virtuosic pianist, and Burnside fills that role splendidly.

Didenko, Nikolay

Nikolay Didenko

In the second group of songs we hear three more singers, basso Nikolay Didenko, tenor Robin Tritschler and mezzo Justina Gringyte. The latter has a bit of a squally voice but is, again, a superb technician and interpreter. Didenko is absolutely terrific, a Russian bass with good notes on both ends of the scale; he might make a terrific Boris Godunov someday. And Irish tenor Robin Tritschler has a light but beautiful voice with, again, good control and clear diction. He might make an excellent Simpleton in Boris some day (among other roles).

Robin Tritschler

Robin Tritschler

Since this album came to me via download, I had no booklet with texts or translations of any of these songs, but fortunately I was able to find most of them on Emily Ezust’s outstanding “LiederNet Archive” (http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_settings.html?ComposerId=5021). If you ever use this site, PLEASE donate a little money to her. She has been running it as a labor of love for more than 20 years and does the fine music public a great service by providing texts and, in most cases, translations of songs by hundreds of composers.

It’s difficult to put Medtner’s style into words because as I say, though melodic (although he was a contemporary of Scriabin and, though a few years older, of Stravinsky, he consciously stayed away from modernism), his musical thinking was far more advanced than Tchaikovsky’s and even Rachmaninov’s. He was, in fact, a highly individual composer who worked not in pastels but in bold colors with equally bold harmonies. Sadly, he fled the USSR in 1921 to live in the West where he was shrugged off and ignored, thus he died in abject poverty in 1951 at age 71. Sviatoslav Richter was one of his few champions who played in the West, but even his occasional inclusion of Medtner’s music in his recitals did not awaken interest in him until much later. There is occasional harmonic movement in his musical line but also extended chords played in the left hand that also move the harmony out of center. The effect is like listening to Rachmaninov with occasional touches of Scriabin or Stravinsky. It’s startling but Medtner was such a good composer that nothing he did sounds out of place. It kind of makes you cry to realize what truly great but unusual composers like Medtner, Koechlin and Szymanowski went through in their lifetimes, starving and struggling for years because their music, though great, was so unusual, while nowadays all these supposedly “great young composers” who write formulaic bullshit get grants and performances of their music all over the place.

In 1945, the Maharajah of Mysore, India, an honorary fellow at the Trinity College of Music and president of the Philharmonia Society of London, put up his own money to allow Medtner to record as many of his works as he could between 1945 and 1950 despite his failing health. Medtner recorded all three of his piano concerti (dedicating the last of them to the Maharajah), two sonatas, several smaller pieces (including the Russian Round Dance as a piano duet with Benno Moisevitch) and many of his songs with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The recordings sold poorly and did nothing to sustain Medtner or revive his once high reputation.

In the 8 Gedichte, Op. 24 we finally get to hear soprano Ekaterina Siurina, and she has a wonderfully pure and beautiful voice—and, again, great diction. We also get to hear our second tenor, Oleksiy Palchykov, and he is also a bright-voiced singer with good diction, albeit with a more “Russian” sound. He could be a splendid Dmitry in Boris some day.

Indeed, as you go through this set, you come to realize how much more varied and interesting Medtner’s songs were than, say, those of Rachmaninov, who wrote some very good songs but all in a lyrical vein based on Russian folk music. Medtner is consistently more intense, sort of like comparing Carl Loewe to Franz Schubert.

If you buy this album, even as a download, from Delphian you will have access to the booklet which I did not. I strongly recommend this set if you have an interest in 20th century Russian music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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