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Nikolai Medtner's Unforgettable "Forgotten Melodies"

Cahill Smith
Courtesy of the Artist
Cahill Smith

Pianist Cahill Smith feels deeply connected to Nikolai Medtner’s music, and he is devoted to bringing it to greater prominence in today's classical scene. His new CD featuring Medtner's "Forgotten Melodies" is WCRB's CD of the Week.

Nikolai Medtner, born in Moscow in 1879, was an astounding pianist. But even as a great pianistic future sparkled before him, he chose to give it up and compose instead. In his music, he summoned his mastery of the keyboard and his reverence for Beethoven, combining them with the affecting humanity of his own unique spirit. While composers like Scriabin and Prokofiev took radical detours, Medtner held devoutly to his own convictions, applying himself to a continuation of the 19th-century traditions of tonality and form that sparked his genius. Rachmaninoff called him “the greatest composer of our time.”

Pianist Cahill Smith was born and raised in rural Alabama. He’s played around the world (including here in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and he teaches at Lee University in Tennessee. His debut CD opens with Medtner’s first book of “Forgotten Melodies,” a string of colorful character pieces tied together with an essential element of the group’s opener – the Sonata Reminiscenza (Sonata of Reminiscence). While it contains the building blocks of a traditional sonata, it features a haunting twist, opening with an entrancing bit of music that mysteriously spins itself into earshot, mimicking the way a deep memory rises to consciousness. That bit of music recurs throughout the cycle of pieces, haunting the whole with a warm humanity.

Smith is careful to reveal bits of the DNA of all the pieces on the recording while keeping the emphasis on the sheer beauty of their character. His liner notes offer small excerpts of the scores, unveiling motifs and themes with eloquent descriptions of their effect.

Listen to the brooding “Meditation” (track 9), which Smith suggests comes from the “restless visions of a disturbed mind.”

Contrast that with “Primavera” (“Spring Tale,” track 11) which, he says, flows forth “like a stream gathering momentum from snow-melt.”

The “Canzona Matinata” (track 12) hovers in the air with a floating and irresistible lyricism in Smith’s hands, and throughout the recording there is a palpable sense of love – a real affinity for the directness and honesty in Medtner’s music, which goes straight to the heart.

Smith, like many other pianists, takes the time to point out that a composer with the depth and signature quality of Medtner deserves many listenings. We agree.

Here’s an interview with Cahill Smith, before he and some of his colleagues from the Eastman School of Music brought a concert of Medtner’s music to Carnegie Hall:

Watch a performance from the album here:

To purchase this recording, and for more information, visit Cahill Smith's website.