Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, S124 (1849, rev. 1853, 1856) [19:06] Piano Concerto No. 2 in A, S125 (1839, numerous revs., pub. 1863) [21:48] Totentanz, Paraphrase on the Dies Irae, S126 (1849) [15:58] Hungarian Fantasia, S123 (1852) [15:14] Oleg Marshev pf Aalborg Symphony Orchestra / Matthias Aeschbacher Danacord DACOCD 651

Comparative recordings:

Piano Concerto No. 1 Tamas Vasary/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Felix Prohaska (LP, DGG Heliodor 2548 235) Piano Concertos, Totentanz Joseph Banowetz/CSR Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Dohnбnyi (Naxos 8.550187) Hungarian Fantasia – George Bolet (radio broadcast, other performers and recording details not known)

I was sorely tempted to start with a cheery, “Four war-horses on one CD – now that’s what I call value for money!” However, a little-used corner of by brain quickly counselled caution: “Best not get carried away – after all, it is really only three war-horses.” Just so – even with the best will in the world, you’d hardly describe Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto as anything more than fringe repertoire. Certainly, in concerts it’s much less common than its more brazen stable-mate, and even its relative popularity on CD is illusory – invariably, it’s found hanging onto No. 1’s shirt-tails.

However, that’s by the by, because really I’m more interested in the concertante sense of “war-horses”, as works that have become fodder for the vanity of flashy virtuosi. There – now I’ve gone and laid myself a minefield. Methinks I’d better tread carefully. Careful step number one: I’m by no means trying to imply that everyone who plays war-horses is necessarily a flashy virtuoso. Careful step number two: by their very nature, war-horses require a virtuosic technique. Step number three is relatively reckless: how often do we come away dumbfounded by a dazzling display of digital dexterity, but with a growing realisation that we didn’t hear any music?

This sort of argument may be all well and good when we’re thinking about, say, the likes of Beethoven or Brahms, but not Liszt. To a large extent, Liszt actually set out to create war-horses. He wrote his concertante pieces for his own use, expressly to show off his own formidable technique – in order to put the wind up the menfolk with his precision machine-gunning of the piano and – choosing my words carefully – to turn the ladies weak at the knees with his keyboard caresses. In Liszt’s case, then, the question is: did he put any music into these pieces?

As we could argue about that until the cows come home, it’s best settled through direct demonstration at the hands of a thoughtful virtuoso. Yet, even that isn’t as straightforward as it seems – if showmanship is the devil and thoughtfulness the deep, blue sea, just where in between do you pitch your tent? Well, there’s no lack of pianists prepared to snuggle up to the devil whilst, on this recording, Oleg Marshev for one seems to allied to that rarer breed who are inclined to hug the shoreline.

Marshev has built himself something of a reputation as a “thoughtful virtuoso”. Basically this is because, whilst he has all the prerequisite firepower, he deploys his weaponry strategically and with an unusual degree of circumspection. As his many recordings for Danacord amply demonstrate, Marshev can mix it with the best of them when it comes to Rambo-like assaults on the keyboard, yet his fingers also possess extraordinary finesse. At either extreme he maintains what seems to me an exceptional clarity of articulation.

However, I feel that Marshev’s most outstanding attribute is his enviable musical sensibility – a torch that illuminates in the music qualities that often flicker but dimly under the candles of many others. One (dare I say?) shining example is his recently-issued set of the Prokofiev Piano Concertos (see my review). Here, amongst plenty of other things, he mined a seam of playfulness that, with hindsight, we all knew should be there but rarely experienced. I’m prepared to bet that, if you sample some of his many MusicWeb International reviews, you’ll find them sprinkled with similar revelations. I find myself wondering if Serendipity has been at work – the long delay in issuing the Prokofiev set has rendered effectively consecutive two releases of the concertos of two outstanding composers-cum-virtuoso pianists. Is this to be a happy coincidence?

For a representative sample of Marshev’s approach, we need look no further than the opening movement of the First Concerto (track 1). Here, I might seem to be putting the cart before the horse, so please bear with me while I first consider my selected comparisons. The Banowetz CD is one of Naxos’s very early issues, from the days when – according to legend – the company was supposedly minimising its costs by, inter alia, paying its Eastern European recording artists in “cabbages”. Actually, this was the first Naxos disc that I ever owned. During those not-so-halcyon days when most CDs cost a packet, I bought it “on spec” after a friend had tipped me off that “Woolies” (Woolworth’s) were selling classical CDs for comparative peanuts. It was the best bag of peanuts I ever bought – not because it was incredibly good, but because it opened the door to tripling my buying potential!

Incredibly good it isn’t, but neither is it at all bad – listening to it again after some considerable time, I was pleasantly reminded that much of it is very impressive. Joseph Banowetz, born in the USA and (presumably) remunerated in a currency other than cabbages, is no mean musician. In 1992, only a few years after making this recording, the Hungarian Liszt Society awarded him their top honour for his services to the cause. The start of No. 1 finds Banowetz storming the barn, generating bags of excitement in the time-honoured virtuoso manner. However, he allows his enthusiasm to get the better of him, taking his runs a bit faster than his hands can manage, so that the joins are showing, and then laying into the second subject like a heavyweight contemplating a first-round knockout.

What about Vasary, then? Renowned as a Liszt specialist, his credentials are immaculate – in fact, anyone who’s been presented with a Steinway by Kodбly must surely have what it takes! Well, what Vбsбry takes is exactly the same tack as Banowetz, although the rather more experienced Hungarian is mindful of the bounds of his dexterity. Nevertheless, even Vбsбry seems a trifle impatient with the second subject, urging it upwards and on almost before it’s caught its breath and found its feet, and crowning the crescendo with a no-punches-pulled climax. Both seem to be pushing against the limits of their capabilities, wringing the music for every last drop of its virtuosic potential. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with this: simply, it represents the “traditional” approach to playing this music.

Right – now let’s consider Marshev! His entry into the first-movement fray is massive yet measured – exuding authority, laden with portent, and lacking only in ostentation. In fact Marshev, clearly playing well within himself, seems to be studiously shunning sheer showmanship. Rather than tearing up and down the music’s terraces, hell-bent on challenging the track record, he gives every impression that he’s carving out those terraces from the musical mountainside with his bare hands.

Yet, when the music melts into the tender second subject, he slips seamlessly to the opposite pole, pinpointing the filigree with such unexpected and extreme delicacy of touch that I imagined the wafting of fine-spun lace shirt-cuffs over the keyboard. The icing on the cake is that Marshev resists that apparently overwhelming temptation to “milk” the crescendo and ensuing climax. By keeping the rising passions in proportion, he consolidates the second subject’s overall feeling of liebestraum.

As with several previous issues, I get a distinct impression that Marshev is looking after the music, and letting the virtuosic showmanship look after itself – or, viewing it from a different angle, here there is a different kind of virtuosity at work. It isn’t unique to Marshev but, nowadays, when it seems that the public expects ever more spectacular pyrotechnics even when just opening a book, it is becoming increasingly rare.

Moreover, the sample is indeed representative. Nevertheless, a quick resumй is called for. In the second movement, Marshev again seeks that aura of liebestraum. Ignoring the “quasi” in favour of an unqualified “adagio”, he creates an almost “ad lib.” feeling, as if musing at the keyboard, and again declines to overcook the climax. Surprisingly, in the subsequent “Tchaikovskian” episode Marshev, although not lacking piquancy, is laid-back rather than cheeky – largely because he’s saving it for the Allegretto, where he unerringly winkles out a real sense of rhythmic “bounce”. The finale’s initially quite relaxed tempo is cranked up by degrees, with Marshev showing superb agility and pin-sharp, even-handed articulation – yet at the end, quite unaccountably, he suddenly seems to take a back seat.

This is one disc where the Second Concerto comes off rather better! I should point out that Danacord have split the first and third movements into two tracks apiece, in line with Liszt’s sectional tempo markings. The first movement moves from expansive, with Marshev piling on the power in his climax, to rudely diabolic in the subsequent, more jagged music – and whilst the dramatic impetus is impressive, its sudden dissipation is even more so, Marshev managing to sound, if anything, “puzzled”. As in No. 1, he takes the second movement significantly slower than the marking suggests, giving himself room to indulge in some delicious caprice flecked with bursts of proportionate passion.

It just gets better. The third movement opens with a satisfying blend of Handelian pomp and rumbustiousness. Marshev, choosing this as his moment to cut loose, dispatches his chordal runs brilliantly, capping them with a thunderous climax. He thereby intensifies the crescendo leading to the return of the main theme (track 9), which positively bristles with added swagger, by contrast leaving the movement’s contemplative tail sounding impressionistic. Quite possibly Marshev feels that this main theme reprise is also the work’s climax: the brief finale is spiky, rippling and glittering, but the conclusive reappearance of the pompous march by no means “tops” that swaggering third movement reprise. To some ears, holding anything back at all here may sound suspiciously like anticlimax. I’m inclined to agree, but I’ll hold my horses on that for a bit.

For me, there’s a big question mark hanging over Totentanz. Because of Symphonie Fantastique we are in the habit of thinking that there’s something inherently diabolic about the Dies Irae. However, in spite of his work’s title (“Dance of Death”) I’m not at all sure whether Liszt was picking up where Berlioz left off, or invoking the melody’s proper association with the Day of Judgement. Is Totentanz meant to be daemonic, or just fearsome? Marshev, possibly bucking the trend, seems to incline towards the latter. His opening has such terrific, crushing weight that I feared, if not for my immortal soul, then certainly for the structural integrity of the piano. Yet, at around 4:00, we find Marshev as cool as a cucumber, oozing classical poise, nudging a “religioso” variation in the direction of some ephemeral, moon-lit Chopin nocturne. Once more, very loud as it is, the coda seemed a tad anticlimactic. I’m still hanging onto those reins.

I recently heard a recording in which George Bolet was the soloist in the Hungarian Fantasia, and it seemed like perfection on legs! The music itself, untrammelled by the rules and regulations of concerto form, at least inasmuch as the innovative Liszt takes any notice of them, is a god-send to any pianist with a penchant for musing, whimsy – and simply showing off his dazzling digital dexterity. If my memories of Bolet’s playing are reliable, then I can say that Marshev – who also possesses the said penchant – runs him pretty close.

Marshev’s first entry is both dreamy and scintillating, imbued with some lovely keyboard colouration. His first forte, preparing the main theme, packs a fair old wallop, whilst his playing – buttons duly loosened! – is fully alive to the shifting moods and modes of the music. Yet again, my hackles responded best to his gossamer touches and his ability to “lift” the rhythm: if the composer offers him even a half-chance of putting a spring in the music’s step, Marshev rarely misses it

In the romping finale, though, Marshev turns a trick that I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard before. Into the opening phrase of the jittering theme he injects a distinct little rubato. This invites any number of comments, not least of which is that it seems to be a singularly sneaky snippet of sheer showmanship. However, the important question is: does it work? Well, I first I thought not, but this was probably because having my gob smacked had temporarily affected the proper functioning of my lug-holes – on a second hearing I changed my mind! It’s part and parcel of Marshev’s considerate approach; even in this out-and-out showpiece, he’s mindful of the music. That the tempo is a bit too relaxed for maximum voltage is, I think, not so much that he can physically accommodate that sneaky rubato, but more because he’s well aware that this is a dance – and a folk-dance at that. Consequently, at the expense of visceral thrills we get the relatively unaccustomed thrill of actually being able to sway in time to the music. More’s the pity, then, that yet again the piano somehow gets lost in the noisy closing pages.

I can feel the reins slipping, so perhaps it’s time to attend to those “held horses”. On this disc, it seems that there are problems with both the orchestra and the recording. The Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, whose strings sound sweet but slender, generally play competently and with feeling, yet sometimes they don’t – or Matthias Aeschbacher doesn’t – seem to sympathise with Marshev’s particular approach. For instance, their opening salvo (track 1) sounds decidedly lightweight, lacking the baleful emphasis that would complement Marshev’s entry. They needed to take a leaf out of the Naxos book. Both the orchestras in my comparative recordings are much beefier – but the CSRSO is also much, much sterner of accent.

Throughout, in fact, the ASO’s contributions are a bit variable. When they’ve a mind to, for example in the Second Concerto’s second movement – or indeed the third movement (track 9), where they are flute-flavoured – those sweet strings can charm the birds out of the trees. Yet once or twice, as in the “storm clouds” of the First Concerto’s third movement or the Second Concerto’s first movement, those slender strings tend to get lost in the undergrowth. Really, this shouldn’t happen at all, never mind once or twice, because the bass brass, lacking real weight and solidity, tend to seem almost as slender as the strings. This I find very curious – after all, brass sections as a whole are hardly renowned for their similarity to shrinking violets, are they?

On the one hand, the woodwind can also be charming, as in the clarinet’s conversation with the piano (track 1), which is done to a delicious turn, or the neatly-blended oboe and flute (track 7). On the other, for example, the bassoon’s playing of the First Concerto’s first subject (track 1) seems strangely somnolescent. This variability seems to permeate the entire ensemble. Whilst both the orchestral processional in Totentanz (at about 11:45) and the end of the First Concerto feel woolly and under-emphasised, on other occasions the orchestra’s belly catches fire – as when swaggering along with Marshev (track 9), or crunching cacophonously at the start of Totentanz. I found myself feeling a bit flummoxed – surely the orchestra and conductor couldn’t be this inconsistent? What is going on here?

The answer may lie in the sound. Within the sound-picture, the piano seems almost as “wide” as the orchestra. In itself, this comes as no surprise: Jesper Buhl is notorious for favouring a big “piano image”. As he’s the company MD this choice is, of course, his prerogative. I’m not that keen on it myself, but unless you’re a habitual headphones user, it is of relatively little consequence. We also have plenty of warmth and resonance within the space occupied by performers, but a lack of air and ambience in the space beyond, and reverberant tails that go on for a reasonable few seconds but sound oddly remote.

At first I thought maybe the microphony was simply too “front-focused”: setting up to create a big “piano image” and bolster the slender strings could well leave the boys at the back starved of substance. But then I remembered those occasions where the strings get submerged anyway, or where the normally “up front” piano recedes into the woodwork, and these in turn reminded me of the clarity of the tingly triangle (track 3) and the warm booming of the bass drum (track 12).

To me, it starts to seem as though this is the result of a microphone setup that is basically flawed. However, instead of putting the basic setup right, it has been successively supplemented to compensate for consequent imbalances. Finally, in an effort to tie up the loose ends, the sound engineer has resorted to temporary fader tweaks – and overdone them. I may well be wrong, but that’s what it sounds like – and it leaves us with the possibility that most of what seems wrong with the contributions of the ASO and Aeschbacher could actually be put right by judicious re-balancing of the original, multi-track masters.

The presentation and booklet notes are well up to Danacord’s usual standard, although the colourful art-work that had become almost a trade-mark of Marshev concerto releases has here been set aside in favour of a photograph. I’m no fan of “performer-led” covers: for one thing, they often lead to controversy over “bosom-revelatory” poses – although (sadly) there’s no chance of that sort of carry-on here! However, I do like the CD label itself, featuring as it does an absolutely cracking picture of the composer. The booklet note by Colin Anderson, whilst coming over all coy when alluding to the composer’s sexual shenanigans, is nevertheless a nicely informative, compact and well-balanced essay that makes a good case for the music. There are also detailed notes about all the performers.

With the best possible justification, many people regard these works as virtuoso showpieces, pure and simple, and will therefore consider anything with less than maximum virtuoso voltage as a metaphorically-mixed damp squib. However, even though Liszt hadn’t intended them as a bequest to posterity, they have nevertheless survived – and thrived. That alone is reason enough to at least consider treating them as something more than “toys for very clever boys”. All it needs is a pianist prepared to sacrifice virtuoso brownie points. That’s “all” – yet, in today’s commercially driven, fiercely competitive climate, that’s asking an awful lot. Let’s face it: Marshev could so easily have joined the crowd and, as he is well able to, scored brownie points by the shovelful – but he hasn’t, and I commend him for his courage and integrity.

Alright, it’s mildly regrettable that the venture is flawed, but in spite of what I’ve said please note that the flaws are far from fatal. Inevitably, Marshev does not electrify the listener in the way more traditional readings do, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Marshev presents an alternative, musically more thoughtful view. He has something interesting to say, and it deserves to be heard.

Paul Serotsky