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Nikolaï Medtner

Mélodies oubliées (Forgotten Melodies)

Elena Filonova, piano


Mélodies oubliées (Forgotten Melodies)

Vergessene Weisen opus 38
Danza festiva
Canzona fluviala
Vergessene Weisen opus 40
Danza col canto
Danza jubilosa
Vergessene Weisen opus 38
Canzona serenata
Vergessene Weisen opus 39
Canzona matinata
Sonata tragica


Drei Arabesken opus 7
Ein Idyll
Tragoedie-Fragment n°1
Tragoedie-Fragment n°2

Production, Recording Engineer: Lubov Doronina.
Mastering: Pavel Lavrenenkov.
Recorded in Moscow, March 2004.

AR RE-SE 2005-9

Melodies: Forgotten and Found Again...

« I always believed that Art, just like nature, was the work of God. My principles? I try to develop the spirit which comes from above, without inventing any new laws »
Nikolaï Medtner (1880-1951)

The story behind the public reception of Medtner’s work is that of a misunderstanding. Too passionate for the avant-gardes, too complicated for the feverish Rachmaninov fans, Medtner’s music never really won the hearts of the masses. The comparison with Rachmaninov is not incorrect but it is perfidious: even today, Medtner still suffers in seeing himself compared to one of his most fervent supporters. The artistic differences between the two men are more determining than their common points.

Medtner’s piano style is romantic, virtuous, lyrical but certainly not easy as the score is tightly held together. The structure of his pieces is often so epic that he sometimes risks losing his listeners amongst it. They are however cleverly mastered: the tumultuous waves of inspiration are barricaded by a strong string of events. The paradoxical Medtner is like a tightrope walker on a thin wire stretched between an arduous desire for expressiveness and a commitment to rigour and austerity.

Medtner’s life can be told in a few lines: born in 1880, he studied at the Moscow Conservatoire. He dedicated his life to composing music, and spent it on stage. And then, he went into exile: the first time fleeing Bolshevik Russia to Berlin in 1921. Germany however had no desire for this musician that it esteemed too conservative and whom it never really understood. His second exile started shortly after in Paris and although supported by a small group of faithful listeners, life there was difficult and disappointing. After travelling the world giving concerts, he started his last exile in 1935 in London. There he finally found success but as World War II was about to start this was quickly stopped in its tracks. His last public appearance took place at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1944. Unexpected help from the Maharajah of Mysore allowed Medtner to record for His Master’s Voice before he disappeared in 1951 far from his home country, Russia, and from his loved ones.

Medtner was to learn more from his written work than from his career as a composer. His music was not influenced by circumstances but it was the secret of his musically orientated soul. Medtner fixed his own musical barriers so that he could aim for a more accurate tone: choosing to write “true” music in the form of sonatas inherited from Beethoven, the revered guide. Medtner proclaimed that he was born a century too late and never really joined the post-romantic musical nationalism represented by “The Russian Five”.

The fibre of his work is particularly elaborated and be it in his sonatas or his short pieces, the development follows a perpetual transformation of simple elements often based on a unique theme. The Sonata tragica n°11 is the perfect example of this. The opening chords give this piece a unique “breath of life” that is present throughout. Medtner’s imagination and musical experience allow him to present this theme in an infinite number of ways. It is quite like the combination of numerous opera scenes that have to be listened to carefully, as here too the agogic rhythm seems to underline the dramatic character of the piece. The last notes of the development are exemplary (7’09) as the increasing tension finishes by peaking on the same opening chords of the piece (7’38). This is proof that an original classic form of music can allow rhapsodic ideas to shine forth. An impressive coda (10’29) finishes the last lineaments of the theme and the movement loses itself in the same harmonies that opened it.

Medtner particularly loved to interpret this organic piece during his concerts. But he never forgot to precede it with the Canzona matinata. This “Morning Song” presents two very characteristic ideas: one of grace and insouciance, one of melancholy and worry that somehow announces the torments of the sonata to follow. To be true, both pieces secretly share part of this theme, which is a frequent trait of the composer’s score.

But let’s return to the beginning of the Opus 39. The Meditazione (Meditation) that opens this piece is one of Medtner’s strangest inventions. A “quasi cadenza” introduction brings out, from nowhere, the Scriabinian colours of a worried world (0’40). The true theme of this piece appears as a dislocated melody that is condemned to come back to itself (1’25). The music escapes its own inertia and ends on a calmer note. The Romanza continues the theme addressed in the Meditazione taking it to an obsessive level. Truly a curious romance that, under the false pretence of a common yet extravagant waltz, promises no other saviour but the noxious repetition of a rough and unsubduable piece of music. The impatient Primavera (Spring) brings a new light to the Opus 39 offering a sunny and joyous intermediary between two dark diptychs.

Already imagined in 1916, the Vergessene Weisen (Forgotten Melodies, Opuses 38, 39 and 40) were only composed in 1919 and 1920. It is possible that Medtner was inspired by a text written by his fellow Russian, the writer Lermontov (1814–1841). In the poem The Angel, Lermontov says that whilst being carried from heaven to earth by an angel, each new child hears a mysterious music that the child will then spend its life searching for. In this poetic text, Medtner obviously saw the metaphor for artistic inspiration, as he never ceased to be amazed by the musical ideas that inhabited his imagination. These pieces of music put the Medtnerian inventions under the particular symbol of reminiscence: the reminiscence or the renaissance of the first forgotten melodies, the reminiscence or symmetry of themes linking different elements of a same Opus together, and the continual reminiscence and metamorphosis of one unique material within a same piece.

Two extracts of the Opus 38 are present in this recording. The third piece, Danza festiva (Festive Dance) reminds us of a village fête with its festive scenes and popular jubilation. This light waltz starts with the rustic ringing of the bells: chords alternated by both hands that change the tone and are minored for the opening of the following extract, Canzona fluviala (River Song). Here less than ever the title of the piece represents the reality of the music. Looking at the use of Italian titles and the references to gestures and vocalism: “Festive Dance”, “River Song”, “Romance”, “Morning Song”, “Dance with Song”, “Joyous Dance”, we can rather see a desire to valorise a certain lyricism through the renewal of the natural union between the corporal and the vocal. The Canzona serenata (Serenade Song), sixth piece of the Opus 38, is a pure jewel of simplicity and emotions. The preliminary theme introduces a melancholic balance that is enhanced by particularly subtle melodies. As a second thematic element interrupts this (0’37), it is followed by a trembling lower chromatic section (0’51), and then it speeds up (1’12) before calming down again. Suddenly, this fretting serenade livens up with virtuoso effects (2’00). The second element returns (2’32), later enhanced by the passionate tone of the music (2’50). Surreptitiously entering the immaterial texture of the music, the equilibrium from the start is reinstated (3’20) and developed by a new hidden melody before dying out quickly.

The Opus 40 of the Forgotten Melodies includes six dances of which the first and fourth extracts are present in this recording. Danza col canto (Dance with Song) is a rich example of the construction of characteristic episodes. The introduction warms up quickly and uses an original metric beat of 5/8. Long nostalgic arabesques pour out (0’33) before the opening notes return (1’44). The central part of the piece contrasts with the beginning by introducing a sort of tarantella (2’12), then strong rolling arpeggios appear producing a naive and turbulent melody (2’32). The arabesque theme returns once more (3’15) before leaving a place for the tearful and menacing introduction. Danza jubilosa (Joyous Dance) combines all the qualities of a scherzo and a toccata: joyous, alert, ironic and perfectly pianistic. It is a kaleidoscope of various episodes: left-hand staccato octaves that parody the majestic nature of a procession, brass chimes, dislocated rhythms for the left hand and voluble garlands for the right. The instrumental success of this extract does not ruin any of the pleasure of listening to what follows.

The Drei Arabesken (Three Arabesques) of the Opus 7 (composed in 1904) show that Medtner had found his personal style from the start. Apart from an apparently stable piano-style, the role of both hands fluctuates in Ein Idyll (An Idyll): sometimes the right-handed double-quavers accompany as well as lead the theme. The chromaticism starts off well before it develops into a troubled pattern (0’59 and 1’26). Apparently less ambitious than the other pieces of the Opus, Ein Idyll still reveals a specific conception of piano music that slowly confers the same eloquence to both hands. This is not the case for the two Tragoedie-Fragmente (Tragedy Fragments) of the Opus 7. The first endlessly repeats a figure of triplets: the centre section of the extract offers a false calming down period before slumbering into the final agony marked by dark octaves. “Write one piece of work like that, then you can die”, cried Rachmaninov. The left-handed arpeggio that supports the second Tragoedie-Fragment produces a true lace-like sound that allows its own counterpoints to appear whilst the right-handed chromatic movements try to impose a new theme. Anxiously repeated, it sometimes appears in particularly complex contrapuntal configurations. The composer produces an urgent and desperate atmosphere that is not unlike the uncontrolled lyricism of certain of Chopin’s Studies.


Medtner’s mother, who looked down on her son’s union with Anna Mikhaylovna, died in March 1918 and, on 21st June 1919, Nikolai married the woman he had met some 23 years earlier. Following political problems, they took refuge in Bugry, in Moscow’s suburbs. Isolated from the capital city, Medtner had to give up his teaching position at the Moscow Conservatoire. It was in these difficult conditions that he composed Forgotten Melodies. In November 1921, Nikolai and Anna chose the uncertain fate of exile in Berlin. The Opuses 38, 39 and 40 marked the end of the Russian period. For the rest, we know that disillusion and instability characterise it. If Medtner’s career as pianist was considerably important, his career as composer was marginal and unrecognised. Bad choices in publicity and old-fashioned aesthetic ideas hindered the artist’s chances of being recognised as he deserved to be, as a creator. Medtner was not tender with the avant-gardes of his era and he explained his artistic creed in a text, in 1935, entitled Muza i Moda (The Muse and the Fashion) in which he argued for the need to save certain foundations of musical expression. His efforts aimed at producing the perfect expressive structure without having to reconsider the actual means of expression as such – quite a rational position to take.

Far from the revolutions that changed the musical world in the first half of the 20th Century, Medtner aimed for an abstract ideal. His writing was not seduced by facility: even though he wrote exclusively for his instrument (and then added others), his work was that of a composer before that of a pianist. That there are still such beautiful pieces of music to be discovered is a great comfort to know.

Nicolas Southon
Translation: Charlotte Cookson

The Press covers it !

« Born into a Germano-Baltic family, Nikolai Medtner is one of the most unique personalities of Russian music. His life can be summed up as follows: studies at the Moscow Conservatory, exiled in Germany as early as 1921, then, in Paris and in London, a career split between piano performances and composition. In his book on piano music, Guy Sacre devoted more than twenty pages to Medtner, whom he situates: "naturally in the Moscovite camp who, far from the nationalism of the Five, practice a cosmopolitan art: a complicated way of saying that they have German influences." The influence of Brahms has not prevented the composer from being loyal to his native country. The Forgotten melodies which Elena Filonova has partially recorded (entirely for Opus 39) are inspired by Medtner’s reading of a poem by Lermontov, The Angel. In the arms of an angel, the small child hears celestial melodies and for the rest of his life tries to find them again. Medtner’s angel was, assuredly, a Russian angel… The musician’s romanticism appears in his virtuoso piano writing, which could be compared to Rachmaninov’s, a friend and an admirer of his, but for the seemingly revolt-driven moments of rupture where the composer isolates himself in a universe without self-indulgence. This is where his grandeur lies: in being, at the same time, modern with his harmonic audacity, his rhythmic freedom, and romantic in his own, very personal way, with the sometimes "confession"-like character of his music, when he lets the "Russian angel" speak. A student of Emil Gilels, who introduced her to Medtner’s work, Elena Filonova, who lives in France but often gives concerts in Russia, plays the Forgotten melodies and the Arabesques with a superb sonority, a deep understanding of these pages, and a power of conviction which are irresistible. »

Le Monde de la musique, December 2005, Jean Roy

« An intelligently composed program that could serve as an introduction to the Russian master: extracts from the three great cycles inspired by Lermontov’s poem, The Angel, a text that gives the key to the musician’s artistic inspiration. According to this poem, the artist’s existence is but a long quest to find the echo of celestial melodies heard at the moment of the birth of each being, when it is brought from the heavens to the earth by an angel. Festive, elegiac or fantastic dances, songs of serenity or jubilation, these Forgotten motives (1920) bear witness to a rare formal perfection. The beautiful counterpoint, the rhythmic complexity and the harmonic plentitude run together in a pianistic writing whose elasticity can be compared to that of Chopin’s or Schumann’s music. Elena Filonova’s playing possesses a remarkable clarity which allows for rather lively tempos without prejudice for the rich Medtnerian polyphony. She is an elegant pianist whose styled lines can be compared to those of the great American pianist Constance Keene in Rachmaninov’s Preludes (Philips). The slightly improvised musical profusion is thereby granted more cohesiveness, and this Apollinian approach highlights what the Russian composer implicitly owes to Beethoven. (...) Overall success of this record whose almost perfect taste and high quality prove to be great assets. One can only rejoice that new generations of pianists become interested in Medtner, who has suffered the reputation of "belated romantic" for too long. »

Classica-Répertoire, February 2006, Michel Fleury