The resurgence of interest in the music of Nikolay Medtner has tended to focus, understandably enough, on his piano works, with notable recordings of the three concertos by Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS, 5/07, 2/10, 3/15) together with recitals of solo pieces by Hamish Milne (CRD and Hyperion), Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), Steven Osborne and Marc-André Hamelin (both Hyperion). Many of the songs have yet to be rediscovered. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to have some of them in her repertoire, and there have been selections by Ludmilla Andrew and Susan Gritton on Chandos. But this is the first major panorama of Medtner’s vocal output, featuring as it does 54 songs from his total of just over 100.
Medtner selected his poetry from the top drawer of Pushkin, Tyutchev, Lermontov, Fet and others in his Russian songs and, for the most part, from Goethe and Eichendorff in his German ones. Unlike his close friend Rachmaninov, Medtner set his German texts in the original language rather than in Russian translation. Unlike Rachmaninov, he continued writing songs after emigrating from Russia and settling in north London.
Iain Burnside, whose discs of the Rachmaninov songs (Delphian, 5/14) have earned wide acclaim, here assembles some of the same team for his Medtner compendium, with the soprano Ekaterina Siurina, mezzo Justina Gringyte˙, tenors Oleksiy Palchykov and Robin Tritschler, baritone Rodion Pogossov and bass Nikolay Didenko. One of the many positive features of the Rachmaninov set was the way in which Burnside recognised the integral role of the piano parts – by no means mere accompaniments – in conveying the emotional nub of the songs. With the Medtner set this gift is even more noticeable and even more necessary. Knotty interpretative problems that run through Medtner’s solo piano music are no less acute in his songs: in a booklet note Burnside amusingly quotes one of his singers as declaring, ‘It all makes sense until you start playing!’ It needs work and a great deal of stylistic insight (not to mention digital agility on the pianist’s part) to appreciate how the vocal and instrumental lines complement one another. There is considerable complexity to the piano-writing in a song such as the gentle Pushkin setting ‘Lish’ rozy uvyadayut’ (‘As soon as roses wilt’), Op 36 No 3, incidentally misspelled ‘uvryadayut’ on occasion in the booklet. The sixth number in the same set, ‘Arion’, is another one of formidable intricacy; so, for that matter, is the fifth, ‘Noch’’ (‘Night’), though that one is not included here.
In all these songs Medtner is the same tone poet as in the piano Tales and Forgotten Melodies, but the close artistic alliance between Burnside and Ekaterina Siurina in the Op 36 ones ensures that the music not only gels but also communicates palpable feeling and subtlety of expression. Burnside has enlisted singers who can bring an apt kaleidoscope of colour to this repertoire. The lyric tenor of Robin Tritschler is heard to radiant effect in several settings of Goethe and Eichendorff. Oleg Palchykov scales the dramatic heights of ‘Ya potryasyon kogda krugom’ (‘I am struck dumb’), a Fet setting, Op 24 No 5, but can equally evoke tenderness in ‘Ya vas lyubil’ (‘I loved you’), fourth in the Pushkin set, Op 32. The bass of Nikolay Didenko brings a telling note of introspection to his singing of Goethe, Pushkin and Tyutchev; there is a febrile urgency to Rodion Pogossov’s interpretation of the Pushkin ‘Zimniy vecher’ (‘Winter Evening’), Op 13 No 1, and the mezzo Justina Gringytė is delightful in ‘Babochka’ (‘The Butterfly’), Op 28 No 3, as well as harnessing passion to the famous Goethe words of ‘Mignon’, Op 18 No 4. But this is just to pick out a few highlights from a set that is full of them.
Medtner is given a new, fresh perspective here, one that embraces his dual interests in Russian and German literature and reveals how it could ignite his imagination to create evocative images as well as keeping the pianist perpetually on his toes.