RAVEL: Miroirs. MEDTNER: Second Improvisation (in variations form) / Michael Brown, pno / First Hand Records FHR78
Michael Brown, the intrepid American pianist-composer, presents here two extended works by two master composers of the first third of the 20th century, Maurice Ravel and Nikolai Medtner. Although their compositional styles were completely different, each one was a highly creative artist within his specific field. Miroirs, of course, is a famous piece which has been recorded many times over the decades, but the Second Improvisation of Medtner is still a relative scarcity (I could only locate previous recordings by Poom Prommachart, Hamish Milne, Geoffrey Tozer and the late, great Earl Wild).
The acoustic of this recording has a lot of reverb in it, which I normally don’t care for, but in the case of Miroirs it actually helps to give the music a shimmering sound, despite the fact that at times the reverb almost sounds like feedback. Engineer Monte Nichols should have been a bit more careful in not overdoing it too much. Yet the performance itself is a fine one, played with surprising strength and drive which is not always the case in Ravel performances.
By contrast with the objective-impressionist style of Ravel we hear the subjective-late Romantic style of Medtner. It is typical of this composer that the theme upon which he bases his series of variations is tune he calls “The Song of the Water Nymph,” but also typical of him that his harmonies are much more chromatic and interesting than those of his older colleague and friend Rachmaninov. In my review of Stephanie Trick’s recording of music by James P. Johnson, I referred to his style as the “graduate course” of American stride piano; the same can be said of Medtner, he was the “graduate course” of late Russian romanticism. Already in Variation 2, marked “Capriccioso,” one can hear how Medtner absorbed some of Scriabin’s harmonies but refashioned them in his own personal manner.
In this recording, Brown includes two recently-discovered variations. Brown places the first of these fifth, between the numbered fourth and fifth variations; the second is played between variations 11 & 12. They clearly fit into the scheme of things. As Brown relates in the liner notes, the National Library of Canada was holding 89 pages of sketches and drafts of this work in Medtner’s own hand. He was struck by several details:
Firstly, Medtner wrote out several different order possibilities to the variations. Further into the sketches, Medtner writes the whole work out. To my delight, there are two complete variations included here that were not included in the published edition, and a fragment of another he called Waltz. The first complete untitled variation has a tempo indication which reads ‘Pesante.’ The second he calls La Cadenza. Sincere, languorous, and sublimely gorgeous are just a few words that came to mind upon reading through them. I was in love with them and determined to see how I could thoughtfully integrate them into the work. Through months of trial and error, I have come up with the order on this recording – which is based on Medtner’s various order possibilities in the sketches, combined with my own aesthetic sense.
These added variants, then, make this recording indispensable for Medtner fans as well as for fellow pianists who may wish to include them in future performances of this work. As I said earlier, excellent performances with just a bit too much reverb.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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