MEDTNER: The Angel, Op. 1. Suite – Vocalise. 7 Songs After Pushkin, Op. 41 No. 2. Sonata – Idyll, Op. 56 (pno solo). 3 Unpublished Songs / Ekaterina Levental, sop; Frank Peters, pno / Brilliant Classics 96062
This is the third volume of Nikolai Medtner’s complete songs for Brilliant Classics by soprano Ekaterina Levental and pianist Frank Peters. It includes his Op. 1, The Angel, as well as a Sonata-Idyll for solo piano, ending with three unpublished songs. This might signal to the uninitiated that this may be the last volume in this series, but we still have more songs to cover, so keep your eyes open for at least one more volume to come. But at least we’re getting closer to having the bulk of Medtner’s songs available.
The unusual thing about Ekaterina Levental is that, although she studied both harp and voice at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague, she was a professional harpist for several years before switching over to singing in mid-career, yet except for a few edgy high notes she has an excellent voice and excellent control of it. She also has crystal-clear diction and is, as I’ve mentioned in my earlier reviews, an outstanding interpreter. In The Angel, however, she hits an exceptionally beautiful pianissimo high C in the middle of the song, which shows that she is gaining better control of that part of her range.
The Angel, like most of Medtner’s music, is Romantic in structure and harmonic language but extremely interesting in structure. This is, however, what baffled audiences, particularly in the West after he fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and held him back from public acceptance on a scale matching that of his friend, Rachmaninov, whose music was much more conventionally melodic. The more I hear his music, in fact, the more I feel that he combined the harmonic language of mid-period Scriabin with a melodic line closer to Mussorgsky. Listen, for instance, to his Vocalise suite; it is utterly fascinating, musically quite complex for late Romantic music, but not in the same category as Rachmaninov’s much more memorable Vocalise which became an instant “hit” in the classical world. The piano part, as usual for Medtner, is very complex, here including some rising chromatic passages in the middle that would never have occurred to Rachmaninov…and once again here, Levental’s soft singing is absolutely exquisite, flawlessly controlled from start to finish.
None of this is to say that Medtner’s music was as modern as that of Stravinsky or Prokofiev, and it wasn’t, but that was a problem, too. Audiences and critics of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s kept waiting for Medtner to develop a more modern style in order to be in step with those composers, but he never did. He always stayed within himself, thus his music wasn’t conventionally melodic enough to be popular or modern enough to be accepted as “contemporary,” yet his music was truly great, musically inventive and emotionally affecting. It was just out of step with his times, thus he died a pauper.
One is continually astonished by how much originality and invention there is in his scores; just listen to the fairly simple piano introduction to the last of the Vocalise songs, with its subtle use of modes and chromatic harmony, and you’ll understand what I mean. In “The Window,” the first of the 7 Songs After Pushkin, Levental sings a perfectly-controlled crescendo, and in “Spanish Romance” she attacks one held note with no vibrato, slowly adding vibrato to it as she reaches the end of it, which again shows further gains in controlling her voice.
Credit must, of course, go to pianist Peters who, as in the previous volumes of this set, does an excellent job with Medtner’s difficult piano writing, perfectly balancing the virtuosity and energy of his part with the fact that he is also accompanying a singer. The few songs that Medtner himself recorded in the late 1940s (mostly with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) show a similar approach to the music. Interestingly, although the Sonata – Ballade was one of the works that Medtner himself recorded in the 1940s, the Sonata –Idyll was not, thus this is a valuable recording even if the music is, by Medtner’s high standards, surprisingly light in mood and feeling.
This release is yet another feather in Levental’s cap as an artist; for Medtner fans, an indispensable release.
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)