Review in Bulletin of the European Piano Teachers Association, 2023/3

A tribute to Medtner
For a long time, the music of Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951) was perhaps the best-kept secret of twentieth-century Russian piano music. In recent years interest in his pianistic and musically interesting oeuvre has been increasing, but he has not yet completely emerged from the shadow of his Russian colleague and contemporary Rachmaninoff. The question is also whether that will ever happen. Although his kinship with Rachmaninoff is evident, the fact remains that Medtner’s compositions are a bit more academic and less accessible than his more famous fellow countryman. Medtner is more a composer for connoisseurs, and especially for pianists, than for the general public.

Pianist Patricia Verhagen wants to improve this image with her CD-tribute to Medtner, on which she recorded four of his most impressive and accessible works. Medtner could not have wished for a better advocate for his music, because Patricia Verhagen appears to have everything technically and musically necessary to convincingly present these pianistically complex works. Her playing is so powerful, resilient and imaginative that it is not clear to the undersigned why this pianist is not better known; her biography, as printed in the otherwise very informative booklet, certainly underlines this.

Verhagen opens and finishes her CD with two sonatas, both in one movement. The Sonata in G minor from 1909-1910 is still strongly rooted in Romanticism, but already Medtners music shows a unique sound. The piece starts very excitingly with an almost gritty, rhythmically interesting ‘dialogue’ and soon leads to dramatically intense chord sequences. The spiritual middle section, composed from the opening, culminates in a flashy reprise.

The Sonata tragica, opus 39 no. 5, with a playing time of just over 10 minutes, is a third shorter than opus 22. The work is at the same time grimmer and much darker. It is audible that in the years 1918-1920, the period in which Medtner wrote it, the world was on fire as a result of the Russian Revolution.
The two works flanked by the two sonatas are much milder and friendlier in tone. The imaginative Six Tales, opus 51 are among Medtner’s most beloved piano works. These short pieces do not have a program, but they do focus on two characters from Russian folklore: Zolushka (the Russian counterpart of Cinderella) and Ivanushka the fool. Vigorous dances alternate with lyrical narratives. Certainly in No. 6, but also in No. 1, Medtner’s style seems closer to Prokofieff – albeit less biting – than to Rachmaninoff.

Canzona matinata, opus 39, no. 4 was composed in the same turbulent years as the Sonata tragica, but there is no trace of the unrest caused by the advancing revolution in this peaceful and carefree morning song. The quality of Patricia Verhagen’s playing allows all these facets of Medtner to sound optimal. Moreover, the pianist plays the beautiful Steinway concert grand piano used for CD recordings in the Westvest90-church in Schiedam.

Christo Lelie