MEDTNER: 9 Lieder from Goethe, Op. 6. 3 Gedichte of Heine, Op. 12. 12 Lieder from Goethe, Op. 15. 6 Gedichte of Goethe, Op. 18 / Ekaterina Levental, mazzo; Frank Peters, pno / Brilliant Classics BC 96066
The latest entry in mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Levental’s ongoing series of the complete lieder of Nikolai Medtner focuses largely on his early works, the Opp. 6, 12, 15 & 18 lieder. One set is taken from Heine, the other three from Goethe. The liner notes assert that “It is not surprising that the language of those emigrated composers like Medtner was German in addition to Russian. Ever since Tsarina Catherine II the Great had brought German peasants, doctors and Engineers to her country in the late 18th century…German had become a second language in everyday life in Russia.” This is not entirely correct, however; although German was accepted among working class Russians, the language of the Russian upper class—of which Medtner was a part—was French since the middle of the 19th century. This was one reason why the majority of Russian artists and composers fleeing the Soviet Union, including Medtner himself, went to France and not to Germany, also the reason why Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe had most of its performances and successes in France. Granted, as a well-educated upper-class Russian, Medtner was drawn to Goethe and Heine because of their immense reputation as great writers, thus this collection features only their poetry as lyrics for his songs, but the booklet’s assertion omits the strong French connection (largely due to both countries’ obsession with ballet).
And although German is assuredly the language of these songs, the musical expression is quintessentially Medtner’s own: tonal but sometimes skirting tonality, particularly in the piano accompaniments, and a musical progression that is unorthodox, using real melodic lines but staying away from cheap solutions just to please a tune-hungry public. It was for precisely these reasons that Medtner’s music failed to please most audiences. It wasn’t off-putting, but it was more advanced and less memorable than, say, the songs of his older contemporary (and admirer) Sergei Rachmaninov, who was immensely popular.
A good example is the “Song of the Elves” in the first set, where Medtner uses rhythms broken up in an asymmetrical manner, rising and falling chromatics against a piano accompaniment that constantly shifts between minor and major. Of course, this is not the only such example; and in several of the songs, particularly “I Roamed the Meadows,” the piano accompaniment is so busy, complex and virtuosic for a song accompaniment that it takes over the music, driving the singer and, in the solo passages, taking over as the lead “voice.” “First Love,” the eighth song in the first set, also plays with the rhythm and tempo albeit at a slower pace.
No matter where you test him, Medtner was clearly an excellent composer, sadly out of step with his time: too tonal and conservative for those who were hungry for modern music, yet too complex for those who like their tonal music to be “lovely” and easily accessible. But this is music that was built to last, and this it does in every note and phrase of these songs. One of the most modern in style is the second Heine song, “Lyrical Intermezzo.” Here, Medtner actually skirts tonality in much of the accompaniment though he ends up resolutely in B major, but his harmonic shifts are so often subtle that it takes a really keen ear to catch them all.
As you listen to this collection you will note the general mood of melancholy, a quintessentially Russian mood. Nor is this confined to the slower songs; the minor keys used in even such an uptempo piece as “Selbstbetrug,” the third song of the second Goethe collection, also suggest an uneasy feeling. In this song, too, the accompaniment is virtuosic and rhythmically difficult to pull off.
Ekaterina Levental is, as she has been consistently throughout this series, an excellent interpreter of the lyrics and unfailingly musical in her phrasing and understanding of Medtner’s unusual musical lines, but after a period of getting her voice settled in its production she here gives us some harrowing high notes, sung too “open”. Perhaps she should have considered pitching the songs containing these high notes a half-tone down in order to approach these notes more comfortably, but in this day and age I can accept her singing on its own terms. At least she does not have a bad flutter in the voice or a wobble and, wonder of wonders, her diction is crystal-clear. As he has been throughout this series, pianist Frank Peters is simply miraculous. Those of us who are familiar with Medner’s own playing through his late-1940s recordings (which include some of his songs performed by him and a young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) can appreciate how closely Peters resembles his model.
This is yet another valuable and excellent contribution to the Medtner discography, but don’t hold your breath waiting for your local classical FM station to play any of these songs.
—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley
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3 thoughts on “Medtner Songs, Vol. 4 Released”
You seem to be a great portal for international jazz.
I would love to hear your thoughts on our new album, Inside Looking Out (Prophone-Naxos) with Horncraft. Of course I can send you a CD or give you a link to the music!
“Inside Looking Out” is the new album from Swedish jazzgroup Horncraft, the unique jazzgroup where French horns play an important part in coloring the music.
The group also consists of some of Swedens most interesting soloists and the combination of thoughtful, personal and well written arrangements by Håkan Nyqvist and exciting solos from the members makes this group stand out.”
Dear Hakan: I checked out the teaser on YouTube. The music is somewhat interesting in terms of displaced rhythms but otherwise struck me as pretty generic, so I won’t be interested in reviewing it. Since I have lost the sight in my right eye due to a detached retina, I am severely limiting my review time online. Thank you for sharing, though.
Thank you for your answer anyway and best of luck with your review work in the future. Sorry to hear about your eye. Håkan Nyqvist ________________________________