‘It is a good thing for every man to have a conscience … My contemporaries and I have had the happiness of knowing and loving one … whose heart was pure as a child’s – Nikolay Medtner, a true knight sans peur et sans reproche.’ Issay Dobroven, London November 1951.
Shunning publicity and self-promotion, Medtner (1880-1951) – polyphonist, Beethoven man, ardent post-Schumannite, in Glazunov’s opinion ‘firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art’ – was a composer-pianist steeped in Teutonic Tradition. The critic Leonid Sabaneyev estimated him to be ‘the first real, actual Beethoven in Russia, one who did not imitate but continued the master’s work’. Like Chopin, he expressed himself almost exclusively through the piano. Like Chopin, he knew how to invest a miniature, a song, with large-scale implication, how to generate grand design. No soufflé journalist, his concern was progressively with the massive. Moscow-born, he settled in Golders Green in October 1935, his home a two-storey semi-detached house and garden at 69 Wentworth Road. He’d visited Britain several times since 1928, attracting the attention of the cognoscenti. Sorabji too, who in his 1932 book Around Music hailed him as ‘by far the most interesting and striking personality in modern Russian music … if only for his absolute independence and aloofness from the Stravinsky group and its satellites on the one hand, and his equally marked detachment from the orthodox academics grouped around Glazunov and the inheritors of the Tchaikovsky tradition on the other … like Sibelius, Medtner does not flout current fashions, he does not even deliberately ignore them, but so intent on going his own individual way is he that he is simply unconscious of their very existence. In a word, he has made for himself, by the sheer strength of his own personality, that impregnable inner shrine and retreat that only the finest spirits either dare or can inhabit.’
Addressing the ‘soil and roots’ of music, The Muse and the Fashion, published in Paris in 1935 with Rachmaninov’s help, elucidated Medtner’s credo. ‘I do not believe in my dicta on music, but in Music itself. I do not wish to communicate my thoughts on music, but my Faith in music … the Theme is above all an intuition … It is acquired, not invented … Form (the construction of a musical work) is Harmony … Form without contents is nothing but a dead scheme. Contents without form, raw material. Only contents plus form is equal to a Work of Art … neglect of Rhythm makes musical form the prose, and not the poetry, of Sound … Song, Poetry and Dance are unthinkable without rhythm … Where Thought and Feeling confer with each other, you will find Artistic Conscience. Inspiration comes where thought is saturated in Emotion, and emotion is imbued with Sense.’
Exemplifying, Dobroven eulogised, ‘purity and moral integrity … free from all compromise and subterfuge,’ Medtner prioritised Baroque polyphony, Classical structure, and Romantic metamorphosis. He was a resolute tonalist, a poetic melodist of the old guard. Metaphorically like an Arthurian knight impassioned by his lady, he was an artist in love with the beauty of his muse. He played for beauty’s sake. He composed for beauty’s sake. Being a Russian, they say, is a duty. For Medtner, coming to England didn’t change that. The Moscow nights, the Russian springs, the basilicas and bards of his young manhood: such was his heritage, a chalice of dreams and memories to hold for always. Prince of Truth, he was one of Russia’s great sons.
Medtner’s music comes and goes in my life. I first stumbled across him in the 1951 edition of The Record Guide, its august authors observing that he was less a ‘Russian Brahms’, countering populist assumption, than the grandson of Chopin and Liszt. I wondered at this near mystical emigré and the exotic Maharajah of Mysore who supported him. This man of ”clear blue and deep set [eyes] as penetrating as the mind which illuminated them’ (Michael Salaman). I sought out his post-war HMV recordings. And discovered his Midlands disciple Edna Iles – ‘the bravest,’ he said, ‘and ablest besieger of my musical fortresses’. In 1977 Records and Recording sent me pressings of Malcolm Binns’s Sonate-Ballade, Sonata minacciosa and Fairy Tales Opus 26 (Pearl) and a path-breaking Hamish Milne double-LP compilation (CRD) which, however, reading back, I only partially understood, failing to warm to the Night Wind Sonata. Two years on, in Moscow, I acquired a handsomely bound edition of his sonatas for next to no money (along with Shchedrin’s first three Piano Concertos and Khachaturian’s complete piano works). During the nineties, his flame blazed again, this time hands-on. I narrowly missed out producing his Second and Third Concertos for Hyperion but then in 1992, in Snape Maltings, worked on a solo album with Nikolai Demidenko, and the following year on a two-piano one with him and Dmitri Alexeev including the Opus 58 Pieces – annotating all three releases. Since then, Geoffrey Tozer’s Chandos CDs aside, he’s receded somewhat in my consciousness. But it didn’t escape me that in 1997 Iles donated her entire library of Medtner material and lesson notes to the British Library – a collection as important as the Göllerich/Lachmund Liszt diaries from the 1880s. Nor that in 2014 Alexander Karpeyev completed a significant doctoral thesis examining this resource (City University, New Light on Nikolay Medtner as Pianist and Teacher) – groundwork reading no pianist should miss. Dina Parakhina’s ambitious afternoon initiative this past week (RCM Performance Hall, 25 October) sees a new chapter unfolding.
Mercurial, fantastical confessions of the soul, Medtner’s Fairy Tales – thirty-eight tableaux or ‘legends’ representing around two-and-a-half hours of music – date from between 1904 and 1932. Contemporary with post-Tchaikovsky Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Feinberg, there’s nothing quite like them in the European repertory.
Opus 8, two numbers, composed 1904-05; Opus 9, three, 1904-06; Opus 14, two, 1906-07: Ophelia’s Song, The March of the Paladin; Opus 20, two, 1909: No 2 Campanella; Opus 26, four, 1912; Opus 31/3 in G sharp minor, 1914; Tale in D minor, 1915; Opus 34, four, 1916-17: No 1 The Magic Fiddle, No 3 Wood Goblin; Opus 35, four, 1916-17 (in the Soviet 1959 Collected Edition, edited by Sofronitsky, Goldenweiser and others, utilising manuscripts provided by the composer’s widow/former sister-in-law, Anna, No 4 is prefaced by a quotation from the storm scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!’); Opus 42, three, 1921-24: No 1 Russian Tale, No 2 Phrygian Mode; Opus 48, two, 1925: Dance Tale, Tales of the Elves; Opus 51, six, 1928, ‘Dedicated to Cinderella and Ivan the Fool’; Opus 54, Tales from Romantic Sketches for the Young, four, 1931-32: No 2 Bird’s Tale, No 4 Fairy Tale (Scherzo), No 6 The Barrel-Organ Player, No 8 The Beggar.
‘Little musical novellas’ Heinrich Neuhaus thought, as personally charged as anything in Schumann’s piano cycles, late Brahms, Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words or Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. ‘The idea of fairy tale, сказка, skazka, is very Russian,’ Dinara Klinton reminds. ‘Stories invented on the spur of the moment, stories not always good or comforting but scary. Fairy tales in Russia are part of the folklore, inspiring operas, ballets, poetry. Fairy tales open up endless opportunities and fanciful plots, they conjure images in the mind, triggering responses and associations to be taken as far as a person will allow.’ In Richard Holt’s 1955 memorial symposium, ‘Freud’s unknown Russian patient’, the philosopher Ivan Ilyin (who’d befriended Medtner and his brother Emil in 1913), left a snapshot of their landscape. ‘A unique, superabundant wealth of spiritual content. Uttered by [their composer], the words “fairy tale” need not in the least suggest fairies [largely absent], magic and witchery, [recalling rather] Grimm, Hauff [Märchen], Andersen or the Arabian Nights. The word “tale” is derived from tell, relate, show. A seer and a poet has had a vision and tells about it; in Medner’s case it is more exact to say that he shows it. It is only by way of exception that his fairy tales “relate” or describe, like lyrics or epics sung by a minstrel … [He] thrusts his vision into your mind, gives you a sense of a living presence, “infects” you, as it were, with his vision and makes you experience it. Both the contemplation and its creative expression are perfectly free and spontaneous; but the listener is instantly compelled to enter into the musical event.’
A proliferation of branches and blooms, these kaleidoscopic narratives, not readily clarifiable, journey subtle foregrounds and labyrinthine undercurrents, from the preludial to the epic. In 2008 Ekaterina Chernaya-Oh conveniently noted five key areas of unification bearing on their long-term tensioning and cyclic cross-linkage: (a) thematic/tonal unity, Opus 8; (b) rhythmic complexity, Opus 9; (c) contrasting images, themes and texture, Opus 14, 20, 26, 42, 48; (d) extramural programming, Opus 51; (e) sonata allusion, Opus 34, 35 (University of North Texas, The Skazki (Fairy Tales) of Nikolai Medtner). Delineating and projecting these parameters poses one of the toughest propositions in playing this music, more so arguably than its technical challenge – as with the fourteen sonatas, the deceptively simplistic goes hand-in-hand with the toweringly heroic, day and night in stark opposition, a banquet of associations, feelings and possibilities before us.
Dina Parakhina studied with Tamara Bobovich at the Central Music School (responsible also for training Alexeev, Postnikova and Anna Kantor) and then Yevgeny Malinin at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. A full-blown Classico-Romantic steeped in the Russo-Slavonic-German tradition, heart on sleeve, she breathes, lives and plays Medtner with passion, urgency and high temperament, passing on the flame to her alumni and students. Besides herself (Opus 51) and Dinara Klinton (Opus 54) – who, when she was Benjamin Britten Piano Fellow at the RCM a while back, studied with her, and is now herself on the College’s professorial roster – seven pianists took turns at the helm, presenting the complete Fairy Tales chronologically albeit undated. Juan Pablo Hinojosa (Opus 42, 48); Matthew McLachlan (this year’s Chappell Medallist, Opus 9); Xin-Yu Ng (Opus 14); Irena Radic (Opus 8, 26); Roelof Temmingh (Opus 20, 35); Elizaveta Velikhova (Opus 31/3, Tale in D minor); Yinzhi Yuan (Opus 34).
‘Every piece and every fragment has its own spectrum of colours’ (Excerpts from a Russian Diary). Pedigree Medtner pianism (he won the Anton Rubinstein Prize in 1900) is about hands, mind and emotions, the physical and the spiritual, inhabiting different orbits yet polarised around a central axis. His melody, rhythms, harmony, bass lines, punctuation, dynamics, articulation all lead independent, finger liberated, lives. When to focus or offset, when to coalesce, is a tricky balancing act, the dividing line between organic totality and episodic disjointing (as we heard occasionally, disadvantageously) a critical one. Fundamentally, one has to rivet, to listen to, every element singly, without being side-tracked. Allow each their say and personality – and babble will turn into conversation into speech into eloquence. The best performances came from those who managed to use and bend time, nuance and colour to create poetic allusion and fashion a sense of improvised music inwardly structured yet outwardly freed of the barline. Sensitivity and fantasy, voicing a story, the paced enunciation and delivery of a baritone actor, held the attention. Gratuitous gesture, feathering/splashing the keys, unduly pulverised lower octaves, tending towards bittiness, did not. (Nor did the Hall’s Fazioli 278 react so kindly to percussive protagonists, the upper register prone to edginess and loss of quality.) Opus 14, 26, 31/3 and the D minor Tale without number, stimulated. Greater depths were probed in Opus 34, 42 and 48, the gravity bass regions cloaked in tenebrous theatre – basaltic cliffs at sunset, not for mortals.
Nurturing the instrument through veils of pigment and soft light, Klinton recognised that her pieces from Opus 54 were not about extravagance so much as locket cameo and finely penned calligraphy, their bravura tempered. She dwelt lyrically, her timing and detailing of the Scherzo endowing the staccato element, cross-meters and various entries with the accuracy and élan of a polyphonically responsive chamber group. Witnessing Parakhina shouldering Opus 51 – tidal inner strands, melodic fragments tumbling across the registers, enigmatically tossed off endings, dedication – brought a smile. Inborn style. Ilyin wrote of this set’s ‘peculiar intimacy [of] texture’. Here, he said, was ‘a mysterious princess, full of naïve charm, grace and beauty … a lovely and gentle vision. [Ivan] is a contemplative creature absorbed in the inner life of the heart … and, therefore, sometimes unadapted to practical life – and stupid people take this for “a fool’s stupidity”. The love story of these two … must be rendered with the utmost sensitiveness and spiritual concentration.’ Nearer bygone Russian than their hastier, brittler modern counterparts, Parakhina, bard-like, seduced us through undulating fluidity, touch, tone and body language, here restrained, there animated. At a stroke concert performance and drawing-room soirée, Edwardian lamp and Bechstein grand in the imagination, draped curtains, ghosts in the wings – Moiseiwitsch, Cherkassky, Hambourg … Medtner …
Silence, Fazioli draped in red and gold, darkening aftermath. South Kensington beyond. Flowers, champagne and chocolates for coda.