January 2002

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Piano Works
Morceaux de Fantasie Op.3 (1892)
Elégie in Eb minor; Prelude in C# minor; Mélodie in E major; Polichinelle; Sérénade in Bb minor Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.36 (revised version) (1913/1931)
Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42 (1931)
Oleg Marshev – pianist
Recorded at the Concert Hall in Sønderborg, Denmark April 1999
DANACORD DACD525 / 67.18

This is an excellent disc in a number of ways. One of its characteristics is that it is a condensed survey of the entire piano music output of Rachmaninov. Let me explain.

There are three works on this disc; the Five Fantasy Pieces Op. 3, the Second Piano Sonata in B flat minor and the Corelli Variations. Now the Opus 5 was written shortly after the composer’s student years came to an end. The Piano Sonata dates from his fortieth year and the Corelli Variations was the very last original composition for piano, being written in 1931. However that is not all. Two of the Five Fantasy Pieces were revised as late as 1940 and of course the Piano Sonata was itself reworked by the composer eighteen years after it first performance. So we have a conspectus of Rachmaninov’s achievement over a period of nearly half a century.

Of course this is not the only attraction of this disc. Oleg Marshev is one of the best of the new generation of Rachmaninov interpreters. It is a superb addition to the vast number of discs we have available.

It is not my intention, in this present review to consider the merits of which version of the Sonata is most appropriate to play. I have considered this and the background to the Sonata in some detail in a recent appraisal of Martin Kasik playing this work on Arcodiva UP0018-2-131. There I suggested that the original version was becoming the norm and that much of interest was lost when Rachmaninov revised the score. I still hold to this opinion.

Oleg Marshev brings a superb understanding of this great work to this recording. Every nuance is noted. This is a sonata of great contrasts that tests the pianist’s abilities to the utmost. There are so many notes and so much activity. The interpretation of the dynamics is an art in itself. For example, in this recording the middle ‘movement’ is perfect; the climaxes in the first and last movements are exciting and well balanced. One can only hope that one day he will record the original version of this fine sonata.

The earliest work on this disc is the Five Fantasy Pieces Op.3. Apart from the second piece, the ubiquitous Prelude in C# minor, these are surprisingly little known. The opening number is a rather attractive Elégie written in the typically Russian key of E flat minor. It has been likened to Tchaikovsky’s ‘September’ from his lovely Seasons Op. 37. Yet on further reflection it possible to see a theme that was to run through Rachmaninov’s entire opus – the obsession with death. Although it is not quoted one expects to hear the Dies Irae at any time in the opening bars. However the piece soon changes its mood and before long we have a lovely flowing melody complete with appropriately romantic harmonies. This is really quite an inspired little piece written when the composer was nineteen years old.

The second piece is depressingly popular. For many listeners it is, perhaps, after the C minor Piano concerto, Rachmaninov’s best-known work. He had to play this Prelude at virtually every recital he ever gave. He was never allowed off the stage until it was given as an encore. He was known by the sobriquet of ‘Mr C# minor’. He referred to it as ‘It.’ Yet the strange thing is that this is actually a very fine piece. This Prelude can be by no other composer than Rachmaninov. It is good if we can somehow bring an innocent ear to it. This prelude is a powerful piece that uses typically descending melodies and complex harmonies.

The Mélodie is another little known piece that deserves to be played at recitals in spite of the fact that it has a salon music feel to it.

The Polichinelle, which is the first of the five pieces to lift the prevailing sense of gloom, is a riot of notes. Octaves, trills and complex figurations give this piece a complexity that makes this a virtuoso showstopper. Here is a portrait of Pulcinella or a clown. It is interesting to note that Arensky’s 2nd Suite Op.23 has a similarly titled first movement. Tanyev and Paul Pabst played this Suite for two pianos in Moscow shortly before Rachmaninov embarked on the composition of his pieces.

I think the Serenade is the least successful of these early pieces. It is based on a Spanish theme but that is perhaps just a personal preference. Rachmaninov himself is known to have liked both the Serenade and the Mélodie and came back in later years to revise them.

Oleg Marshev brings his usual superb technique to these works. He plays them with conviction and understanding. He gives as much attention to the detail of these early pieces as to the Sonata and to the Corelli Variations. He is not tempted to allow the frankly sentimental nature of these Fantasy Pieces to cloud his judgement in playing them with good taste.

The Corelli Variations were composed at ‘Le Villa’ in Clairefontaine in 1931. It was during Rachmaninov’s last French holiday. He started work soon after his arrival there and the work took some three weeks to complete. There is some doubt as to whether the composer knew that the theme he used was not actually by Corelli. Barrie Martyn suggests that Rachmaninov may have first encountered the tune in Franz Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. He had added this piece to his repertoire around 1920. It is also possible that the tune was introduced to the composer by the violinist Fritz Kreisler- who would most certainly have known the Corelli 12th Violin and Harpsichord sonata. However this period of music was not normally of interest to Rachmaninov. He dedicated his Variations to the great violinist.

There is certainly a change in the prevailing style of Rachmaninov’s piano writing between, say the Chopin Variations and the present piece. It is often said that this piece was a trial run for the great Rhapsody (which is most certainly not a rhapsody) on a Theme of Paganini. The writing seems to be more ‘Spartan’, if this is the correct word to use. The Variations are written fundamentally in the composer’s favourite key of D minor. The work opens with the lovely, haunting theme. The first thirteen movements are all in this key. However after an interesting cadenza there is a modulation into D flat major. This is the heart of the work. Soon the prevailing D minor tonality returns and this leads the work to a fine coda. However, the big surprise of this work is the quiet, tranquil ending. Oleg Marshev is able to bring out all the contrasts and all the subtleties of this music to advantage. Rachmaninov’s entire stock of keyboard devices are used to make this a well-balanced and well-rounded performance.

This is a lovely CD. Danacord have a winner with Oleg Marshev. In my forthcoming review of Marshev’s and Danacord’s Complete Piano Music of Prokofiev I shall give some details of Marshev’s career as pianist. Everything he touches seems to be excellent. Whether it is the complete piano works of Prokofiev, the Paraphrases of Paul Pabst, the music of Sauer or the Richard Strauss Piano Sonata he reveals understanding, technical competence and perhaps most of all that indefinable quality of sheer magic.

The CD gives 67 minutes of music and has good programme notes. It is to be hoped that Marshev and his recording company choose to make some more recordings of the great Russian master.

He compares admirably with Biret, Shelley and even Ashkenazy.

John France