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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Miroirs (1904-5) [27:35]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Second Improvisation (in variations form) (1925) [31:41]
Michael Brown (piano)
Rec. 2019 at Oliver Music Barn, Fishtail, Montana, USA

When I first noticed this pairing I was intrigued – mostly by the mention of unrecorded Medtner manuscripts, but also by the seeming incongruity of the repertoire; Ravel's utter Frenchness and impressionist style set alongside Medtner, the Russian anti-modernist. How wrong I was. The pairing works wonderfully with the fading notes of Vallée des cloches leading seamlessly into the enigmatic Song of the water nymph, the theme of the Improvisation. Both were written whilst the composers were living in Paris and, as the booklet rightly points out, Ravel's gallery of ghostly moths, sad birds, boats, bells and cavorting jesters fits just beautifully with Medtner's exotic phantasms; wood-goblins, elves, nymphs and gnomes and the world they inhabit.

Recorded in beautiful sound Brown has the measure of both these works with lovely pedalling throughout, and graded dynamics and colours in both works. Noctuelles, moths caught in uncertain flight has a nice sense of restlessness whilst in Oiseaux tristes the bird calls carry though the undergrowth's darkness and the wind blown disturbance of the forest canopy with forlorn resignation. The same winds perhaps are stronger at sea and the Ravel's barque is tossed in a turbulent ocean whose swells have the right balance of control and abandon. Brown characterises remarkably well; in the wildly virtuosic Alborada del gracioso he still finds space and clarity in abundance and in Vallée des cloches there is a velvety quality to his touch, especially in the major chords before the chimes of the valley's bells echo away to nothing.

Medtner's Improvisation, a half hour set of variations, is built upon a theme stated at the outset, the bewitching song of the water nymph. The pedalling here, beautifully employed by Brown emphasising the shifting,unfocused and enigmatic harmony. A kaleidoscopic cadenza leads to a meditation though the ruffled waters still echo through its sound. Blunt humour arrives in the form of a caprice and the multi-faceted and brilliantly hued writing here is characteristic of the work as a whole; feathered ones (or winged dances as I have seen it translated) brings to mind birds squabbling over territory or food, with a diamond-edge to the rhythms and the waves of On the water tell a different story to the storm-wracked Ravellian seascape. This is more about the unceasing rise and fall of the waves, never reaching a state of balance. In some ways this is echoed in the human wave of sound imitated in The tumult of the crowd, a tumult that does reach a crashing climax. Neither is a retreat into the woods (in the forest) a safe option; the woods themselves are restless and turbulent and, we discover as the music shifts focus, the abode of the Wood-Goblin, the unpredictable spirit of the woods. No sooner has he gambolled across our view than the Elves appear, altogether darker creatures than any conjured by Mendelssohn and, at least for Medtner, closely related to the earth spirits who follow in their wake, the Gnomes, a scuttling, breathless breed.

Incantation, with its stately nature, and reminiscent of Bydlo from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition in timbre, gives us a moment's respite after this parade of supernatural beings. The Caprice, an earlier variation seems to return transformed in the variation Threat and in the same way the song of the water nymph returns though it is less enigmatic now. A storm arises from the threads of her song; in the wake of the tumult all that is left is to gather the strands of the melody, lost to the ether. The work concludes in funereal tones, a sepulchral hymn rising from the depths of the keyboard before fading into nothingness.

What makes this recording even more special are the two unpublished variations that Brown has woven into the piece. His interest piqued by a mention of unpublished variations in Barrie Martyn's biography of the composer, Brown's researches brought him to the National Library of Canada where he discovered 89 pages of sketches and drafts in Medtner's hand including two complete variations that were omitted from the published score. The first was just marked pesante – heavy, ponderous and Brown chose to insert it after the appearance of the ethereal spirits. The second one la cadenza fits beautifully after the scherzo-like charms (or spells) and has a flavour of the second Piano Concerto which he worked on from the early 1920s.

This is an astonishing work, complex and endlessly fascinating. Michael Brown has the measure of its many facets and the whole CD is a real feast for the ears. This is his second release for First Hand Records and like his first (FHR67) this was recorded and produced by Brown and his colleagues Adam Golka and Roman Rabinovich who took turns recording, resting, preparing and eating meals and producing each other's recordings. Golka's Beethoven (FHR101) and Rabinovich's Haydn disc (FHR72) were products of the same sessions. In the solitary lives of the concert pianist I can only imagine that this is a marvellous atmosphere to create music in and the results are wonderful.

Rob Challinor



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