Frank Huang Plays Medtner

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what a performanceMEDTNER: 8 Mood Pictures, Op. 1. 6 Fairy Tales, Op. 51. Forgotten Melodies II, Op. 39 / Frank Huang, pno / Centaur CRC 3852

Having tried and failed to get a world-class pianist friend of mine to tackle the music of Nikolai Medtner, I was thrilled to discover this disc and even more thrilled to learn that the artist, Frank Huang, plans to record all of the solo piano music of this great and still-unjustly-recognized composer. After checking my catalog of CDs, I was further happy to discover that I don’t have a single piece ob this CD in my collection. I own excerpts from Fairy Tales, Opp. 20, 26, 34 and 36, played variously by Vladimir Nielsen and by Medtner himself as well as two Forgotten Melodies of different opus numbers, also played by Medtner.

Frank Huang

Frank Huang (photo from the artist’s website)

Huang has a generally soft touch at the keyboard, accentuated by a somewhat distant and, I’m sorry to say, slightly muddy sound quality. Engineer Shawn Fenton should think twice about the microphone placement on future releases in this series. A bit more crispness and presence would have been welcome, and I know for a fact that Steinway pianos, which Huang plays exclusively, have a crisper sound than one hears on these recordings.

Insofar as the performances themselves go, however, Huang does an excellent job with phrasing and articulation. The Op. 1 Mood Pictures are undoubtedly Medtner’s most Romantic-sounding pieces, and to my ears not terribly interesting, but Chopin lovers will undoubtedly like them. The fifth piece in this series is, to me, the most interesting and different of the lot, with its use of chromatics and the pentatonic scale.

With the 6 Fairy Tales, Op. 51, we reach Medtner in his prime, and here the music is much more varied, often shifting suddenly in tonality from bar to bar and sometimes from note to note. Although he never really modernized his style to come into like with the Stravinsky or Bartók schools, Medtner was a much more harmonically adventurous composer than his older colleague, Rachmaninov, who admired him greatly. No. 6 in G has a rhythm that lies halfway between Russian folk music and jazz, but this impression may come from Huang’s interpretation and not necessarily from Medtner himself.

Meditation, from the Forgotten Melodies Op. 39, also has an interesting structure and fascinating harmonic shifts. And this was exactly why Medtner’s music never appealed to the average listener: though tonal, it was too strange for people to follow and his melodies weren’t memorable. They didn’t have “hooks,” as Rachmaninov’s did.

Aside from the muddy sound, a superb release as well as a much-needed one. Hopefully, the following discs will be engineered a bit better.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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