Classical Music Review: New Releases

Nikolai Medtner - Piano Works (Gunnar Sama).Three Arabesques, op. 7; Three Dithyrambs, op. 10; Two Skazkas, op. 20; Sonata in C minor, op. 25, no. 1; Two Elegies, op. 59.  Gunnar Sama, piano.  Lindberg ( PIANO 002 (60'05).

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) is usually compared to his friend and contemporary Sergi Rachmaninoff.  His music is similar to Rachmaninoff's, but with a more cerebral quality.  The rich melodies and swirling passions of Rachmaninoff are replaced by a greater sense of form and a more adventurous harmonic palette.  Medtner's appeal is less direct than his friend's, but at the same time it is more complex and often more surprising.  David Dubal quotes Ernest Newman: "His music is not always easy to follow at first hearing, but not because of any extravagance of thought or confusion of technique, it is simply because this music really does go on thinking from bar to bar, evolving logically from its premises."

Towards the end of Medtner's life, the Maharajah of Mysore sponsored a recorded edition of Medtner's music, but the composer died before its completion.  He retained a modicum of popularity in Great Britain and was never forgotten in Russia, Emil Gilels and Alexander Goldenweiser both championed his works, but for the most part his music faded into obscurity.  Fortunately, the era of the CD has lead to tentative explorations, including an integral recording of Medtner's 14 sonatas by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion and extensive editions on both CRD and Chandos.

Yet his music has not been so deeply explored that the present disk, performed by Norwegian pianist Gunnar Sama, cannot claim three premier recordings.  Despite the inclusion of a sonata, this collection emphasizes Medtner's skill as a miniaturist.  These are subtle, abstract pieces.  Often a placid surface masks an unsettling polyphony.  Medtner's grasp of form is such that every repetition is slightly changed, each time a phrase returns it seems to comment on its previous appearance.

The Three Arabesques (1904), all written in a minor key, begin with a gentle "Idyll" and become increasingly stormy.  The third piece in the group, subtitled "Presentment of the Revolution", is a rhythmically intense piece, unsettling and dissonant.  Mr. Sama's performance rises to the work's technical challenges, while not neglecting the considerable emotional content.  The Three Dithyrambs (1906), named for the Dionysian choruses that Aristotle claimed gave rise to tragedy, increase the chromaticism and extend the musical arguments of the Arabesques.  The harmony and rhythm are also freer.  The first dithyramb, possibly written as early as 1898, and the third are both premier recordings.  The Two Skazkas (1909) are in a more populist vein: simple, emotionally direct, and without the complexity of the previous works.  Often Medtner aims for the heart via the head, but here, contra Newman, one is simply carried along.

The Sonata in C minor (1911), one of Medtner's more often heard works, is essentially a suite of three skazkas (fairy tales).  The pieces, set in a fast-slow-fast order, compliment each other wonderfully.  The third movement, in the form of a march, rather than becoming more strident (a cliché of finales) instead dissipates its energy and ends quietly.  The Two Elegies (1940) date from later in Medtner's career (indeed they are his last solo works for piano), but exhibit no real evolution from the earlier work.  The chromaticism is denser; however, the harmonic base is if anything even more conservative than in the Three Dithyrambs.  Nevertheless, they are beautiful works with rich, valedictory feeling.

This is an intelligently programmed Medtner recital.  The pieces work well together and Sama has wisely chosen not to attempt to survey all facets of Medtner's work.  His familiarity with the composer's idiom -- he has been a Medtner specialist for 25 years and was the first Norwegian pianist to perform his music in public -- shows in every piece.

Tony Gualtieri
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