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Musical Explorations: Visiting Nikolai Medtner

Many of you may know that I am currently recording the complete solo piano works of forgotten Russian romantic composer, Nikolai Medtner. His compositional output for solo piano is enormous: 9 CDS worth of music!

I get asked all the time: why Medtner?

My response is simple. Go ahead and type in YouTube “Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2” and see how many hits you get.

About 1,940,000 results.

Now go ahead and type “Medtner Fairy Tales” and see how many results you get.

About 3,980 results.

I tried to be as fair as possible in these searches. I put in, what I considered to be the most famous piano composition by each respective composer, who were contemporaries of each other, but I think the numbers are quite revealing.

Besides a major discrepancy in the number of performances and recordings of the two composers, Medtner speaks to me from an artistic standpoint. He viewed writing and performing music as a sense of duty, almost like a sacrosanct calling. In his mind, the integrity of the music was paramount. Everything else was secondary. From several accounts, Medtner was unapologetically stubborn and undiplomatic. If he felt that the quality of music was being threatened, he would cast politeness aside.

Recently, I have been reading Robert Rimm’s, The Composer-Pianists. He mentions an interesting and revealing story about the time Medtner was invited to perform Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in Moscow and St. Petersburg with the conductor, Willem Mengelberg. Apparently, they only had one rehearsal planned, and both musicians had major disagreements of tempi. According to Medtner’s account, he thought that Mengelberg took the first movement too fast, insisting that the orchestra should follow him since he was the soloist. But Mengelberg said to him with a condescending smile, “You just play, young man, and it will work out somehow.” After hearing this, Medtner loudly slammed the piano lid, stormed out of the hall, and refused to perform on the concert. The concerto was eliminated from the program.

At least to me, most musicians would relish the opportunity to perform a concerto with orchestra, let alone, one of the all-time masterpieces, Beethoven’s Fourth. Now the conductor was unreasonable, of course, but it seems to me that Medtner struggled with the art of diplomacy. This belief is further strengthened by his strong reluctance in performing music by other composers and his distaste for the business aspect of music. He loathed the concept of marketing, self-promotion, and appealing to the masses. In his mind, he thought that the artist was supposed to be loyal only to the craft. When he saw his close friend and Russian compatriot, Sergei Rachmaninov, reach the international fame and success that he craved, he remarked: “Rachmaninov prostituted himself for the dollar.”

I know that this post is supposed to be in support of Medtner, and after hearing all these stories, you probably are thinking twice in listening to his music. Perhaps he was vain and egotistical, but one thing I admire about him is his selfless dedication to the art. Even with considerable financial struggles and living in relative obscurity, he worked tirelessly and remained passionate in composing. For any serious music student, I think his work ethic is something to emulate; whereas, his interpersonal skills could be less desired.

It is interesting, though, that all of these backstories can be heard in his music. Medtner’s music is generally subtle, nuanced, and reflective. When he writes virtuosically, it is generally not for showmanship, but more for an emotional effect. One can, however, hear the uneasiness and restlessness in his music as Medtner often employs the minacciosa motif (menacing)—most notably used in Sonata tragica, a piece that I play frequently, and most recently in the Medtner Festival in London last November.

Please enjoy a video of my performance of his Fairy Tales, Op. 51, No. 3 and 4 from a concert in Chicago.

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