Wednesday 3 February 2021

The Russian from Hampstead: Sofia Fomina & Alexander Karpeyev explore Nikolai Medtner's complex & passionate songs

Medtner Songs, Op.36, Op.37, Op.45, Op.46; Sofia Fomina, Alexander Karpeyev; CHANDOS
Medtner Songs, Op.36, Op.37, Op.45, Op.46; Sofia Fomina, Alexander Karpeyev; CHANDOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 February 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The songs of Nikolai Medtner are gradually being explored and relished; on this disc the Russian soprano sing songs Medtner wrote at the time of the Revolution and during his early years of exile

The songs of Nikolai Medtner seem to be gradually emerging from their closet. In 2018, Delphian issued a terrific two-disc set surveying a selection of songs across the composer's entire career [see my review] and more recently Brilliant Classics has started a complete Medtner song edition
Now, soprano Sofia Fomina and pianist Alexander Karpeyev have released a disc of Medtner songs on Chandos. Where the Delphian disc selected songs from various Opus numbers, on this new disc Fomina and Karpeyev concentrate on complete groups of songs, the Six Songs by A Pushkin Op. 36, Five Poems by Tyutchev and Fet Op. 37, Four Songs Op. 45 and Sieben Lieder Op. 46.

Born in 1880, Medtner was seven years younger than Rachmaninov and eight years younger than Scriabin. Like Rachmaninov, Medtner left Russia after the Revolution though Medtner did not leave until 1921, living in Germany and France before finally ending up in Hampstead from 1936.

Alexander Karpeyev (Photo Gareth Danks)
Alexander Karpeyev (Photo Gareth Danks)
And whilst Medtner was more productive in exile than Rachmaninov (whose compositional output came almost to a standstill), Medtner's output tailed off after he left Russia and whilst there are orchestral and instrumental works from his London period, there seem to be few songs.

Medtner came from a background which mixed Russian and German culture, so that his song settings mix Russian poets with German poets set in German, though the latter date mainly from earlier in his compositional career. On this disc we hear four groups of songs dating from Medtner's later career spanning the years before and after leaving Russia, with the final group of songs setting German poets.

Listening to the songs with an innocent ear, one can hear links to Medtner's compatriot's Rachmaninov and Scriabin, though there is a more rugged character to Medtner's writing. His songs lack the sheer lushness and melodic intensity of Rachmaninov's. Medtner's song-writing has a very distinctive character, partly arising from the way he often sets the text syllabically; clearly text and its clarity was important to him. Songs generally start with a piano introduction which sets the material, but from then on voice and piano act almost independent, the richly textured piano writing existing in tandem with the voice rather than accompanying it. The result is complex and complicated; when she recorded some of Medtner's songs with the composer in 1951, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf commented that they were some of the hardest pieces she hard learned.

The amosphere is passionate and emotional, often with an underlying sense of melancholy. The harmonic style is complex and chromatic, with some echoes of a composer like Scriabin, but what was notable about Medtner was the way he continued to compose in his own style whilst the rest of the musical world was changing around him. What is also fascinating is that in none of the songs on the disc does Medtner set anything like a contemporary poet, his texts are all from poets firmly in the past.

The first two groups of songs, Op. 36 and Op. 37 were written in the shadow of the Revolution. For the first group Medtner turned to the poet Pushkin, the lightness of the texts sometimes belied by the intensity, complexity and darkness of Medtner's response. The second group set words by Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) and Afanasy Fet (1820-1892), intense melancholy texts which are matched by Medtner's music. 

The third and fourth groups, Op. 45 and Op. 46 were written in the early years of exile, at Erquy, a small town in Brittany. The Op. 45 songs set texts by Pushkin and Tyutchev, and again the mood of the texts is melancholy and passionate. For the Op. 46 songs, Medtner turned to a group of German poets, Goethe, Eichendorff, and von Chamisso, and whilst the overall mood is similar we sense something of a change. Perhaps this is simply because Medtner is moving from Russian to German, or perhaps the relative tranquility in Brittany agreed with him. But Francis Pott, in his excellent booklet note, counsels against being too precise with dates as Medtner tended revisit material in his sketchbooks and to reuse existing material. 

Sofia Fomina and Alexander Karpeyev perform the songs with passion and commitment. Some of the songs seem to take Fomina towards the limits of her voice, but that only serves to highlight the intensity and drama of the works. Karpeyev plays the dense piano parts with skill and fluidity, never retiring into the background but never overwhelming Fomina either. Both performers bring a nice fluidity and flow to the songs. Medtner notoriously ignored barlines in his writing, and the two seem to be at home in Medtner's style. Performances as passionate and as emotive as these make you wonder why we have taken to so long to appreciate Medtner's songs.

I have always found recitals which pick and choose individuals songs to be somewhat frustrating, as I am always curious about what the rest of the songs in that particular Opus are like! On this disc, Fomina and Karpeyev admirably do not play favourites and give us four of Medtner's groups of songs. A fine recital indeed, and a sign that justice is being done to this composer's songs at last.

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1961) - Six Songs by A Pushkin Op. 36
Nikolai Medtner - Five Poems by Tyutchev and Fet Op. 37
Nikolai Medtner - Four Songs Op. 45
Nikolai Medtner - Sieben Lieder Op. 46
Sofia Fomina (soprano)
Alexander Karpeyev (piano)
Recorded Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth 15-18 March 2018
CHANDOS CHAN20171 1CD [57.11]

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