Russian Romantic

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner  was a Russian composer and pianist, who was born in Moscow on January 5, 1880 and died in London on November 13, 1951. After a period of comparative obscurity in the twenty-five years immediately after his death, he has since become recognized as one of the most significant Russian composers for the piano. I’ve chosen today, November the 13th – the day of his death – to celebrate his life and his body of work.

A younger contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, Medtner wrote a substantial number of compositions, all of which include the piano. His works encompass fourteen piano sonatas, three violin sonatas, three piano concerti, a piano quintet, two works for two pianos, many shorter piano pieces, a few shorter works for violin and piano, and 108 songs. His 38 Skazki (generally known as “Fairy Tales” in English but more correctly translated as “Tales”) for piano solo contain some of his most original music.

Medtner first took piano lessons from his mother until the age of ten. He also had lessons from his mother’s brother Fyodor Goedicke. Then he entered the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1900 at the age of 20, taking the Anton Rubinstein Prize.  Despite his conservative musical tastes, Medtner’s compositions and his pianism were highly regarded by his contemporaries. To the consternation of his family, he soon rejected a career as a performer and turned to composition, partly inspired by the intellectual challenge of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and string quartets.

During the years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, Medtner lived at home with his parents. During this time Medtner fell in love with Anna Mikhaylovna Bratenskaya (1877–1965), a respected violinist and the young wife of his older brother Emil. Later, when World War I broke out, Emil was interned in Germany where he had been studying. He generously gave Anna the freedom to marry his brother. Medtner and Anna were married in 1918.

Unlike his friend Rachmaninoff, Medtner did not leave Russia until well after the Revolution. Rachmaninoff secured Medtner a tour of the United States and Canada in 1924; his recitals were often all-Medtner evenings consisting of sonatas interspersed with songs and shorter pieces. Medtner never adapted himself to the commercial aspects of touring and his concerts became infrequent. Esteemed in England, he and Anna settled in London in 1936, modestly teaching, playing and composing to a strict daily routine.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Medtner’s income from German publishers disappeared, and during this hardship ill-health became an increasing problem. His devoted pupil Edna Iles gave him shelter in Warwickshire where he completed his Third Piano Concerto, first performed in 1944.

In 1949 a Medtner Society was founded in London by His Highness Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahadur, the Maharajah of Mysore (the princely state in southern India). The Maharajah was an honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music, London, in 1945 and also the first president of the Philharmonia Concert Society, London. He founded the Medtner Society to record all of Medtner’s works. Medtner, already in declining health, recorded his three Piano Concertos and some sonatas, chamber music, numerous songs and shorter works before his death in London in 1951. In one of these recordings he partnered Benno Moiseiwitsch in his two-piano work entitled “Russian Round-Dance”, Op 58, No. 1; in another he accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in several of his lieder, including The Muse, a Pushkin setting from 1913. In gratitude to his patron, Medtner dedicated his Third Piano Concerto to the Maharajah of Mysore.

Medtner died at his home, 69 Wentworth Road, Golders Green, London in 1951, and is buried alongside his brother Emil in Hendon Cemetery.

Legacy: Hamish Milne has recorded most of the solo piano works. Other pianists who championed Medtner’s work and left behind recordings include Benno Moiseiwitsch, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, and Earl Wild. In modern times, pianists noted for their advocacy include Marc-André Hamelin and Evgeny Kissin.

Medtner’s superb command of his favorite instrument is evidenced in this 1925 piano-roll recording of his Danza Festiva, Op. 38, No. 3.

Afterword:
I was first introduced to Medtner’s piano works by way of his Forgotten Melodies – after all these years I still treasure his scintillating “Spring” performed here by Hamish Milne.

References: Wikipedia; My Diaries

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