On record: Michael Brown – Noctuelles: Ravel & Medtner (First Hand Records)

Michael Brown (piano)

Ravel  Miroirs (1904-5)
Medtner Second improvisation (in variation form) Op.47 (1925)

First Hand Records FHR78 [61’49”]
Producers Adam Golka, Roman Rabinovich
Engineers Monte Nickles, Jim Ruberto

Recorded 2-10 January 2019 at Olivier Music Barn, Tippet Rise Arts Centre, Fishtail MT

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Michael Brown follows his earlier disc for First Hand Records (Beethoven and Mendelssohn on FHR67) with this coupling of Ravel’s most extensive solo piano work and Medtner’s most extended such piece outside of his sonatas; here featuring two recently discovered variations.

What’s the music like?

While the term ‘post-impressionism’ had not then been applied in a musical context, Ravel’s Miroirs effectively inaugurates this through five pieces that evoke the essence of the image in question rather than merely attempting its depiction. Other pianists may have rendered these evocations more acutely, but few have approached so highly contrasted a sequence with such evident concern for formal and expressive unity.

Hence the overall seamlessness with which the fugitive activity of Noctuelles is followed by the wistful poise of Oiseaux tristes; itself proceeded by those glistening textures and kaleidoscopic timbral interplay of Une barque sur l’océan, then the stark juxtaposition (vividly delineated here) between high-jinx and eruptive unease of Alborada del gracioso. Nor is La vallée des cloches the slight anti-climax it can often seem, Brown judiciously setting the scene for that stately modal theme as is among the composer’s most potent inspirations. An interpretation leaving one more than usually aware that the audacity of Ravel’s musical thinking is made more so by its pointed understatement.

One cannot imagine that Medtner had much regard for this music – but, fortunately, he almost always proved more flexible in his accommodation with past and present as composer than as writer. Never more so than with his Second Improvisation, written after he had left the Soviet Union for uncertain exile in Paris then London – its subtitle ‘in variation form’ indicating the fusing of precision and fluidity that gives this work its substance and its fascination. Brown’s perceptive reading is made more so by his inclusion of two previously unpublished variations which he tracked down to the National Library of Canada: thus, the elaborate passagework of La Cadenza (placed between variations four and five) and the coursing rhetoric of Pesante (placed between variations 11 and 12) which, between them, open out the emotional scope of what is already a design as unpredictable as it is engrossing. Certainly, the trajectory between the initial Theme and eventual Conclusion exudes a freedom from inhibition that Medtner here achieves almost despite himself and which Brown is demonstrably intent on conveying.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brown teases out those musical connections between composers whose aesthetic outlook differed greatly (Medtner forthright in condemning most of his contemporaries). The account of Miroirs can certainly hold its own in what is now a crowded field (one featuring such as Beatrice Rana on Warner and Steven Osborne on Hyperion), whereas in the Second Improvisation the main competition comes from Hamish Milne (CRD) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), neither of who include the additional two variations that Brown interpolates here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The acoustic of the Olivier Music Barn is ideal for piano music of this intricacy and subtlety, while Brown’s booklet notes are succinctly informative. A welcome release by one of the Tippet Rise triumvirate who have become notable contributors to First Hand Records.

Listen and Buy

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the First Hand Records website. Meanwhile you can listen to Noctuelles on Spotify:

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