Forgotten melodies from a forgotten composer

A ray of light. © Charles Thibo

The name didn’t ring any bell when I read it on the program of the Philharmonie de Luxembourg back in March 2014. But I didn’t worry about it. A recital by Nikolai Lugansky with Franck, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn – that sounded promising enough not to give too much thought about a composer I had never heard of. A forgotten composer with forgotten melodies: The last piece Lugansky played that evening was Nikolai Medtner’s Canzona Serenata Op. 38/6 from the piano cycle “Forgotten Melodies I”. A revelation.

Medtner and Rachmaninov

Medtner was born in 1880 and studied under Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory. At some point, supported by his teacher Taneyev, he stopped pursuing a double career as a pianist-composer and, unlike his contemporary and friend Sergei Rachmaninov, decided to devote himself exclusively to composition. When the Russian Revolution of 1917 broke out, Medtner stayed on while Rachmaninov left. The two cycles “Forgotten Melodies” saw the light in 1918. Medtner would emigrate only in 1921 – to Germany. Rachmaninov occasionally performed pieces written by Medtner and helped him with a concert tour through the United States in 1924-25. Medtner came back to the Soviet Union for a series of concerts in 1926-27 and settled down in London in 1936. He would never return to his home country.

By this time his life gravitated around composition only: dozens of sonatas, more than hundreds of “romances”, the Russian equivalent of the German Lied (song), a few works for chamber music and three piano concertos. He taught students and relied upon the royalties paid by his German publisher to survive. When World War II broke out, these sources dried up. War related hardships and a declining health put severe limits on his output, but thanks to a benevolent patron, the Maharajah of Mysore, all his works were recorded. Medtner died in 1951 in London.

Late recognition of a master

Only some 25 years after Medtner’s death, musicians became interested in his works, and he is now considered as one of the most eminent Russian composers of the 20th century. The French researcher André Lischke writes that “along with Rachmaninov, the pianist-composer contributed to the development of a unique, very personal piano technique and an expressiveness even though he did not innovate in the field of musical language.” Alas, since program directors of concert halls seem to be conservative minded people guided in their choices by a conservative audience, Medtner’s compositions are far less performed than those of his contemporaries Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. It takes an artist like Lugansky, a regular performer of Rachmaninov’s works, to decide: I will play Medtner! Большое спасибо!

The cycle “Forgotten Melodies I” has been recorded by Ekaterina Derzhavina and is a collection of pieces of a striking beauty and elegance. What surprised me most, was their familiar sound, like a language I haven’t heard for a long time, but that I haven’t yet forgotten. At first I was unable to say where the feeling of a certain familiarity stemmed from, but after repeated listening to Danza Festiva Op. 38/3 I know: Valerij Gavrilin, the composer of the “Piano Sketches for Four Hands”! Two composers of comforting, warm and welcoming music – the right choice for a dull, grey November morning.

© Charles Thibo

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