Skazki – Opp.8, 9, 14, 20, 26, 31/3, 34, 35, 42, 48 & 51; and dated 1915
Romantic Sketches for the Young, Op.54
Hamish Milne (piano)
Recorded 3-5 March & 19-21 October 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: HYPERION
CDA67491/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 37 minutes
Even if the music is unfamiliar, it is very evident that Hamish Milne is an authoritative guide to Medtner’s wide-ranging expression; and the pianist’s devotion and perception is very persuasive in holding the attention and forming the listener’s opinion that Skazki (and any one Skazka) – inspired by Pushkin, the Bible, Shakespeare and Russian ‘legend’ – is a notable cycle of piano pieces. Indeed, this is superb music full of atmosphere and imagery, and a powerful sense of narrative, with much that thrills, charms and feeds the imagination.
Medtner (1880-1951) has been rather dismissed, on two counts: one that his music is rather too close in style to the better-known Rachmaninov (and may therefore be thought to lack individuality) and because his sureness of large-scale forms can seem unwieldy. Certainly there is similarity with Rachmaninov, but one can hear Prokofiev, too, if to a far lesser extent – an ironic connection as it seems Medtner was far from enamoured by his younger colleague – but in the ‘short story’ scale chosen for Skazki, Medtner is revealed as more individual than hitherto perceived (by this writer, anyway). Medtner’s Russian-ness is very apparent (particularly in the suggestion of bell sounds), but so too is a wider agenda of expression, not least Germanic (initially Medtner used the German word for tale, ‘märchen’).
Medtner, like Rachmaninov, was a virtuoso pianist (that much is evident from what seems totally idiomatic writing for the instrument) and, similarly, travelled as a concert-giving musician (Medtner settled in London for his last years) and was a Romantic composer who didn’t necessarily embrace his musical times; and the more one hears the Skazki, the more one becomes aware of quite a compositional personality – and these pieces are wholly splendid in their invitation and variety.
The first is jaunty and expressive, a marvellous introduction, and there is little along the way that disappoints; indeed, there is so much to warm to – and Hamish Milne (who is no stranger to recording Medtner’s music) gives wonderfully ‘alive’ and patrician accounts, acutely observed. Furthermore he supplies a lengthy essay on the composer and the music he plays here; it’s just the sort of ‘package’ that makes one reconsider Medtner’s output (and, it must be said, the musicianship and technical abilities of Hamish Milne).
Romantic Sketches for the Young (shades of Schumann in the title) begins with a lovely ‘Pastoral’, quite delightful, with something French about it, Fauré-like (but not as elusive), and the seven pieces that follow – a mix of ‘Prelude’ and ‘Tale’ – are intimate and insouciant, never predictable and always intriguing.
Completed by flawless recording quality – immediate, vivid and truthful, but never oppressive (dynamics are faithfully captured) – this is a quite outstanding and revelatory issue.