I’m excited for our first CD release story of 2021! Solo Piano Works of Nikolai Medtner Vol. 1 is a labor of love championing this lesser-known classical music composer of the Russian Romantic Era. Here to tell the story is none other than the mastermind behind the CD, Associate Professor of Piano at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and Steinway artist, Frank Huang.
Before I introduce our guest, I wanted to give a little back story of my introduction to composer Nikolai Medtner’s piano works.
Who was Nikolai Medtner? Here’s a teaser. He was a Russian composer and pianist who lived from 1880 – 1951, a contemporary of world-renown composer Sergei Rachmaninov. More, including why you haven’t heard of the composer, will be revealed in the interview below.
It wasn’t until the 2000s, through a series of events that I learned of this remarkable composer. In the mid-2000s, I attended a solo piano Classical Encounters home concert by a Dr. Dmitry Rachmanov. His technical prowess and sensational playing was riveting. Chatting with him after concert, I found him to be warm, genuine and a pleasure to talk to.
I made a point to attend Dr. Rachmanov’s engaging lectures and performances at MTAC (Music Teachers Association of California conventions and Sara Compinsky Master Classes, allowing me to continue my own education as a pianist and piano teacher.
Then in 2008, I attended Dr. Rachmanov’s CSUN music department faculty recital. In the mix of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Scriabin, a selection of hauntingly beautiful Fairy Tales by a Nikolai Medtner resonated in me to such an extent, that directly the next day, I ordered a CD and a book of the composer’s complete piano solo works. This almost never happens. I was hooked.
Fast forward to 2019, you can imagine how excited I was to stumble upon a performance of Medtner’s Fairy Tale, Op. 26, No. 2 on Facebook by pianist Frank Huang.
Someone else knew of Medtner?! I immediately emailed Frank through his website. Not only did he graciously and warmly share his mutual enthusiasm for this composer, but (surprise, surprise) he mentioned having connected with Dr. Dmitry Rachmanov! (Goosebumps.)
I emailed Dr. Rachmanov to get the story. “I met Frank Huang at the Adamant Music School in Vermont (don’t remember the year, but it must have been the late 1990s), brought there by his private piano teacher from Seattle, Willard Schultz. Northwest School of Music.” – How cool is that!!
In December 2020, when Frank posted on FB of the imminent debut of his CD featuring a selection of solo piano works by Medtner, a light bulb went off in my head. Actually two light bulbs went off. One – I gotta get me an autographed CD, and Two – I want to scoop the debut. My autographed copy arrived in the mail earlier this week, and Frank graciously accepted my invitation to interview him about his CD debut. Woot!
I’m pleased to share the story of this remarkable CD and intel on how you can get one for yourself.
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LRW: As an art teacher, the cover art of CDs gets noticed right away. May I ask who designed your CD cover art? Were they hired by the record label or did you get to choose?
FH: Joe Maranzino was the graphic designer of my album cover. It was a pleasure working with him to help me convey the essence and spirit of the project though his art. I was fortunate to find him through the recommendation of friends and colleagues.
LRW: How nice to work with a graphics designer referred by friends. The light shimmering through the trees has an ethereal look. The flecks of green hint at the possibility of forest spirits, evocative of Medtner’s piano solos featured on your album.
But isn’t a CD dedicated to one composer uncommon? What is the story of how and why you chose Nikolai Medtner? Why these particular works? Why now? Details, please.
FH: Actually, albums dedicated to a single composer are less uncommon than one might think! For me, I have always been drawn to the idea of bringing lesser-known composers and works to the spotlight. There is always a unique story behind them.
LRW: Good to know. Yasss! We share the same passion for those composers. I love sharing their stories with my piano students.
FH: In the case of Medtner, he was a good friend of Sergei Rachmaninov, but did not reach a similar level of fame as his Russian compatriot for a variety of reasons. If you are comparing the two composer’s writing styles side-by-side, Rachmaninov’s music tends to have more of an instant appeal; whereas Medtner’s requires repeated listenings to truly appreciate his music—almost like an acquired taste! Despite these differences, Rachmaninov had tremendous respect for Medtner and famously stated that he was the “greatest composer of our time.”
LRW: I didn’t know Rachmaninov and Medtner knew each other! Good point. That’s so cool to have been regarded so highly by Rachmaninov. As mentioned earlier, I was introduced to Medtner’s repertoire in the mid-2000s. May I ask when you first learned of the composer?
FH: I first heard of Medtner when a classmate of mine at The Juilliard School performed his Sonata tragica (Tragic Sonata) from his Forgotten Melodies, Op. 39, which is one of the works that is featured on this disc. It was such an amazing, powerful, and emotional work that spoke to me right away…though it would be several years later for me to realize that I would want to commit to a massive project of recording his complete solo piano works.
LRW: I was listening to that track on your CD. Very powerful piece, indeed. It is fortunate to have discovered Medtner’s works as a young adult, allowing the time and stamina 🙂 required ultimately to bring your goal of recording his complete solo piano works to fruition! That is quite a commitment. You are to be commended for that. Future generations will no doubt turn to your CDs for reference and enjoyment.
FH: Well, to me, I feel that these efforts are worth the time. Medtner’s music is incredibly ethereal and his harmonies are entrancing and almost spellbinding. It is such a shame that many of his works are virtually neglected on the concert stage and commercial recordings. I feel like it is part of my responsibility as an artist to bring his music to the public’s attention. I encourage everyone to give him a try! For more stories about Medtner, your readers are welcome to check out my blog.
LRW: Here, Here! Your reaction to Medtner’s music mirrors mine. We are co-conspirators in the quest to champion these lesser-known but nonetheless significant composers and their eclectic works. Excellent blog. I enjoyed the accompanying video of your performance of a selection of Medtner’s Fairy Tales. I encourage my readers and students to check this out.
Frank, I understand this is your third solo piano album. There are many labels out there. Why Centaur Records? Did they approach you for the project?
FH: As mentioned earlier, my creative interests tends to focus on lesser-known works. Centaur Records, one of the most reputable independent record labels, shares a similar mindset, though they also feature albums of more traditional repertoire. I have released albums of Brahms and Jack Gallagher in the past.
Linda: Good to know. I’ll have to research Centaur’s story at some point. I noticed your CD is “Volume 1”. The lineup of 19 performances is impressive:
Eight Mood Pictures, Opus 1
Six Fairy Tales, Opus 51
Forgotten Melodies II, Opus 39
I assume it is part of a series of albums dedicated to Medtner rather than a standalone recording?
Frank: Yes, this is the first of a nine-disc set. I am recording Volume 2 sometime early next year. Stay tuned!
LRW: Wowzer! I will stay tuned! Can’t wait to hear! I look forward to blogging about its release, then. With concert halls closed, would you happen to be planning a live stream event of some of these remarkable works? Maybe a YouTube video or a series?
FH: A couple of years ago, I founded a virtual recital series, Rallentando, where I perform Medtner among many other works. Interested readers can check out previous seasons at the above link. I plan to livestream more of Medtner’s works in the future.
LRW: Ah, yes. I’ve indulged in your Rallentando series on several occasions from your Facebook page. For those who aren’t familiar, “Rallentando” (ralənˈtandō), is a musical indication for performers to slow down, stems from the Italian verb, rallentare, which means to slacken and relax. A great cue for us to step off the daily grind and immerse ourselves in a sound bath of beautiful music. Goodness for the ears and the soul not to mention the blood pressure. Thank you for creating this wonderful cultural online series. I encourage my readers and students to savor these delightful offerings. Once concert halls open again, do you plan to perform these works live? If so, how may my students, readers and I be kept informed? Is there a mailing list we may subscribe to?
FH: That is the plan! If you want to stay up-to-date on my activities and blogs, please subscribe here
LRW: So glad to hear! Appreciate the link. I’m subscribed and recommend my readers and students do the same so they don’t miss out. BTW, where may your CD be purchased? Will it be available on music streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple iTunes, etc.?
FH: For those who would like a signed CD, they are welcome to contact me directly through my website. Otherwise, my CD will be available for purchase starting April 16, 2021 on Amazon, iTunes, and through Centaur Records’s distributors, HBDirect or ArkivMusic. Selections will be up on my Spotify page as well.
LRW: Perfect! Frank, it was a privilege interviewing you on your upcoming CD. Your warmth and dedication made it a pleasure. I look forward to sharing your CD and more about Nikolai Medtner and his lyrical piano solos with my students, friends and family. When time permits, I’ll be contacting you for remote lessons on that Fairy Tale, Op. 26, No. 2…it’s on my Bucket List!! #neverstoplearning
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Ready to purchase the CD?
Mark your calendar for April 16, 2021 and visit Amazon, iTunes, and or Centaur Records’s distributors, HBDirect or ArkivMusic.
Want to listen first? Check out the CD on Spotify.
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Thank you for your interest and support!