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CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Prokofiev Concertos

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB
February 2006

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
The Five Piano Concertos
CD 1 [68’49] Piano Concerto No. 1 (1911-2) [16’44] Piano Concerto No. 4 (1931) [27’29] Piano Concerto No. 5 (1932) [24’36] CD 2 [68’22] Piano Concerto No. 2 (1913, rev. 1923) [37’38] Piano Concerto No. 3 (1916-21) [30’44]
Oleg Marshev (pf)/South Jutland SO/Niklas Willèn
Danacord DACOCD584/5, Musikhuset, Sшnderborg, Denmark, 30 July – 10 August 2001 [2 CDs, 137’11]

A thoroughly refreshing new “take” that is a strong contender for top billing. Marshev and Willèn prove to be a formidable interpretative pairing, superbly supported by the supple and slender South Jutland orchestra

This new Danacord set is in fact anything but “new” – it was recorded in 2001, over four years ago! According to Jesper Buhl, the company’s founder and seemingly indefatigable M.D., this unusually long delay was due to the recording engineer falling ill during the sessions. Now, in the world of the small, independent record company, such a seemingly mundane eventuality tends to behave like a snowball on an alpine slope. A replacement engineer had to be found, and the remaining sessions re-scheduled for a date when the various personnel and the hired venue were all available. The snowball rumbled on. The replacement engineer didn’t know the original microphone layout and, of course, his equipment was in any event completely different. Thus, it was a major job even to approximate the sound of the original sessions. Broadly speaking, the upshot was a “recording” comprising a mixture of two differently-balanced, partial sets of masters.

The snowball rumbled on! To produce a final master now involved not one, but two extra factors. Firstly, there were three busy people – two independent, freelance engineers and the producer, who was also Danacord’s M.D! – to bring together on as many occasions as necessary. Secondly, specialised equipment was needed to “weld” the disparate sources. There is plenty of this equipment about, but as it tends to reside in big broadcasting houses or permanent studios, where it is in almost constant use, finding a slot was another major headache. As Jesper said, “Before you know [it], four years have passed away.” Amen to that. Was it worth the effort? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Feeling certain twinges of sympathy with my colleague John France, who has also reviewed this recording, I echo his implicit “dismay” at the numbers of alternative recordings of this repertoire. As John implies, if you want the “best” of each, you do have to pick and choose your way through a heaving morass of alternatives, and – unless money is no object be prepared for heaps of overlap and excess baggage. On the other hand, if you’re content to trade having the “best” recording and performance of each individual concerto for the “best” all-round recorded cycle, then the job’s a bit less messy.

Consequently, like John, over the years I too have “largely stuck with” Decca’s Ashkenazy/LSO/Previn set. Ever since its first release, way back in the Dark Ages B.C.D. (before compact disc), reviewers have time and again seen fit to hail it as the best all-rounder – and with substantial justification. Hence, this set can fairly be said to have stood the fabled “test of time”. Therefore, it would seem eminently sensible to press it into service as a benchmark. So, I’m going to be quite contrary, and start by looking at another recording entirely and moreover a recording of just the First Concerto.

I’ve had the Katz/LPO/Boult recording in my collection for nearly 40 years, firstly as a Pye Golden Guinea LP and latterly as a PRT CD (PVCD8376) whose almost irredeemably grotty presentation is more than compensated by Michael J. Dutton’s utterly exquisite digital re-mastering. The recording itself is currently available on Cembal d’Amour CD109 (see Jonathan Woolf’s review). Even allowing for the unavoidable feeling of cosy familiarity with an old friend, to me this recording of the Prokofiev still sounds just about as good as it can get. For its age (1959), the sound is lovely, full-blooded yet clear enough, and commendably stereophonic. More importantly, the performers rarely put even a toe wrong, and here I’m talking not of mere technicalities, but of the spirit in which Prokofiev’s outrageous music is represented.

The opening brass chords rasp fit to take the skin off your aural knuckles, their corpulent consonance cracking wide open the ambivalence of the subsequent skipping theme. Veering vertiginously between childlike playfulness and adult inebriation, this sets the tone of the whole performance. Every episode crackles with its own distinctive character, yet each yields to its successor with almost organic inevitability. For example, Katz catches the vodka-soaked lurching of the passage following the concerto’s slow core as near as dammit to perfection, whilst Boult’s stage-management of the build-up to the final flourish, with its sizzling syncopated episode, is hair-raising.

However, it’s that “slow core” which is most captivating. Like Mahler’s infamous “allegro energico, ma no troppo” (Sixth Symphony, first movement), Prokofiev’s “andante assai” is, to say the least, an ambiguous marking. “Andante” means “slowish, but not slow”, or “walking pace”, so what modification is implied by the “assai”? Is it slower than walking pace, or faster? Quite properly, to my mind, Katz and Boult shelve the assai altogether and opt for a straight andante. At this pace, playing with delicacy and circumspection, and studiously avoiding any exaggerated expression, they find in the movement a feeling of slightly tainted innocence that mirrors the naпve roguishness of the outer sections.

If we turn to the “benchmark” Ashkenazy/LSO/Previn recording, there are of course very many good things to savour, but they come mostly courtesy of the LSO and Previn, who create some delicious sounds. The Decca recording is both richer and more detailed, but the flow is disrupted by some over-interpretation – for instance, the “mysterious” episode without any obvious rhyme or reason – at one point grinds to a complete halt. Moreover, Ashkenazy’s piano is too far forward, tending to predominate even where it is quite evidently supposed to be accompanying.

Compared to Katz, Ashkenazy somehow seems a bit po-faced and aggressive, lacking that essential degree of playfulness whilst, compared to Boult, Previn makes the orchestral sound feel rather too civilised for such wickedly mischievous music. Those opening chords again set the tone. Although they are better balanced, with more body in the strings, that sassy brass rasp is sadly missing. Then again, Ashkenazy has under-dosed on the vodka, and the acceleration towards the final climax is overdone, so that the syncopations sound “gabbled”. Although their Andante Assai is only marginally slower, Ashkenazy declines to deliver the legato that the music demands, and his climax is redolent not so much of dewy-eyed youth as of care-worn middle-age.

At this point it’s only fair to ask, why has the Decca set ruled the roost for so long? The obvious reason is that Previn and Ashkenazy are individually superlative interpreters of Prokofiev, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. I can remember the first time I saw Ashkenazy in the flesh, at the very first symphony concert I attended. As he took a bow alongside Barbirolli, I was struck by his diminutive stature (I can say this with impunity, being no great shakes at the high jump myself), but still more so by the sheer power of his playing of the Emperor Concerto, the recoil frequently forcing his bum clear of the piano stool. Later, as a student, I saw him again, playing the Beethoven Fourth. The start of his cadenza nearly lifted the roof of Newcastle City Hall! Of course Ashkenazy can also play with the utmost delicacy but, somehow, when he does there’s always this feeling of an iron fist clad in a velvet glove.

Sadly, the only time I’ve ever seen Previn in the flesh, he was not performing, but being interviewed. So, to judge his qualities as a conductor, I can only go by his recordings and broadcast performances. They are impressive enough. To an uncommon degree he combines those two old incompatibles, dramatic flair and structural sense, which rapidly became evident during his love affair with English music especially Walton and Vaughan Williams. His recording of Prokofiev’s complete Romeo and Juliet ballet seemed to suffer by comparison with the Cleveland/Maazel recording, which happened along at practically the same time. Yet, to this day his version remains one of my favourite records, precisely on account of those virtues, compounded by a supple, elastic approach to tempo, and a willingness, even eagerness, to put the lyrical on an equal footing with the rhythmical.

Thus, it seems to me, the secret of this set’s success is that Previn regards Prokofiev as primarily a “Romantic”, whilst Ashkenazy, contrariwise, treats him more as an out-and-out “Modernist”. These effectively conflicting viewpoints, coming from two powerful musical personalities, infuse their joint performances of these concertos with a certain extra electrical tension. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the recording tends to pull the rug out from under their collective feet. Make no mistake – in most respects the recording is superb, as rich as Christmas pud, at times positively luxuriant. The trouble is that, much of the time, the piano is too far forward, tipping the balance too much in favour of Ashkenazy. It’s true that there are places where Previn’s LSO produces some awe-inspiring power, but these are often places where the piano is silent, or buried in its own bass. Turn to the quiet passages, where the piano is supposed to be whispering, and that undue prominence seems to fray the edges of the velvet gloves.

Step forward the Young Pretenders! What do they have to offer?. Well, first let’s complete the trio of First Concertos. Willèn restores the brazen, but sadly not the rasping, quality of those tone-setting chords, whilst Marshev’s chirpy piano slots into the ensemble like the leader of the pack. Out on his own, following the opening peroration, Marshev is – perhaps surprisingly – the slowest of the three. Nevertheless he is also, by some margin, the most beguilingly playful. At his tempo, he gives himself elbow room sufficient to explore every cunning little twist in the thematic tale – this really sparkles!

Like Katz and Boult, Marshev and Willèn don’t faff about with their “andante assai” – only they go straight for the assai’s jugular, and adopt a diametrically opposite “at snail’s pace”, playing very sweetly and sensitively, but also oh-so-languorously. Granted, it is gob-smackingly beautiful, but it is also seductive, indulgent and too self-aware, as though the naughty child of the outer sections had temporarily grown up. Although they avoid the Decca team’s ponderousness, their climax is nonetheless grandiose and sweeping, making the movement sound more like ripe Rachmaninov than pubescent Prokofiev.

Still, in the deliciously vivacious outer sections Marshev is much nearer to Katz than to Ashkenazy: Marshev simply oozes whimsical impudence. For example, take the point where Ashkenazy ground to a halt. Marshev does indeed slow right down, but with him there is nothing arbitrary about it. At the same time his playing acquires an improvisatory feel then, at the ensuing presto, although he’s not the quickest he gives every impression of taking off like some small boy caught snitching apples. Similarly, Willèn is much nearer to Boult than to Previn. If he sometimes doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, he does know exactly when to tuck his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Whilst this newcomer leaves my affection for Katz and Boult, like 007’s Martini, shaken but not stirred, it nevertheless manages to knock the formidable Ashkenazy and Previn into a comparative cocked hat. Admittedly, we lose the frisson generated by Ashkenazy’s and Previn’s disparate attitudes, a special quality that will keep their set always close to our hearts. However, by sailing closer to my First Concerto first choice, to my ears at least Marshev and Willèn already show considerable mettle.

Marshev is still, unaccountably, relatively little-known (at least in the UK!). Yet, as has been observed in numerous reviews within these web pages, he is not only a supremely talented pianist but also a musician who thinks long and hard about what his fingers should be doing. This is not to imply that his performances sound in any way dull and deliberate – quite the contrary: once his fingers get going, the music seems to flow right off the cuff. In these concertos, he seems to seek the golden mean between the Romantic lyricism of Previn and the pungent aggression of Ashkenazy. That’s the “deliberation” bit. However, Marshev recognises that the enfant terrible of the First Concerto, a bit like Peter Pan, does not entirely grow up. Right through the cycle he can be heard “spontaneously” seasoning the music with twinkles of boyish mischief.

Willèn’s is a name with which I’m not over-familiar. In fact, to be ruthlessly honest, before this set dropped though my letter-box he’d never particularly impinged on my consciousness. Yet, as you can see if you look at this page of the Hyperion web-site, he’s been around a bit. Then, when I noticed the CD booklet’s mention of a recording of Alfvйn’s First Symphony he had made for Naxos, the penny dropped – I do indeed have that very disc on my shelf! Willйn is a superbly sympathetic partner, coaxing from the SJSO mischief to match Marshev at his cheekiest, proving the equal of Previn when it comes to the lyrical line, and adept at teasing out telling orchestral stones that many others leave unturned. It seems to me unlikely that either the SJSO is incapable of erecting massive walls of sound such as do the LSO for Previn, or that the Danacord engineer(s!) are incapable of capturing them – the often imposing solidity of the bass drum proves that point. Hence, the generally relatively slender sound is a matter of choice on the part of the conductor, all part and parcel of their view of Prokofiev as a composer who is both lithe and light on his feet.

To exemplify, let’s first look at the Second Concerto, which stands apart from the other four in its almost entirely pervasive, red-eyed rage. The opportunities for displays of motoric modernity offered by the music are right up Ashkenazy’s street. Small wonder, then, that Ashkenazy gives a fair impression of “The Terminator” (it matters not which model!) in his relentless pursuit of the towering, glowering first-movement cadenza. This is something that Marshev doesn’t match, any more than, in the denouement, Willйn and the SJSO match Previn and the LSO in the way the crushingly baleful orchestra seems not merely to enter, but to be sucked into the fray. However, it is not that Marshev cannot match Ashkenazy, part of whose power is due to the prominence given to the piano by the recording. It is simply that Marshev’s view is more balanced, finding more poetry and swagger at the start, and finer poignancy at the conclusion. Neither does the SJSO lack sheer brute force: Willйn goes on to generate a devastating conclusion to that climax.

This overwhelming episode is symptomatic of the Decca performance as a whole, from the measured deliberation of the opening, through the unwavering pianistic perpetuum mobile of the second movement, the third’s clockwork “todtentanz” which Previn launches with “chasmic” power, and the pungently propulsive finale. Contrariwise, Marshev throughout finds more poetry in the music, which after all incorporates an expression of not just anger at, but also grief over the wasteful loss of his friend Maximilian Schmidthof. In the second movement, Marshev’s attention to subtle accents gradually begins to tell, as does Willйn’s habit of teasing out orchestral detail. Again, whilst they make the third movement, comparatively, a funeral march, they replace the Decca team’s drive and aggression by grimly sardonic, mordant humour.

Ashkenazy and Previn can be said to take a “traditional” viewpoint: by stressing the mechanistically aggressive, they make the music massively imposing, melodramatic and physically stimulating. Marshev and Willйn, their far more pliant perspective drawing out many more of the threads of romance that Prokofiev weaves into his textures, offer a more measured view of the composer’s soul – and, moreover, one that is less likely, albeit only marginally, to give grannie an attack of the vapours.

In the sterner passages of the Third Concerto, Marshev again lacks the sheer brute force of Ashkenazy, but more than compensates with a finer sense of mystery and playfulness. Much as Previn elicits from the LSO a warm, airy, “balletic” range of expression, his sound is perhaps a bit too sanitary for Prokofiev’s acoustical jungle Willйn’s SJSO sounds leaner and more fitted to the purpose. Danacord’s recording again blends the protagonists rather better – at least, unlike Ashkenazy’s, Marshev’s piano stays in one place throughout! This tendency of Ashkenazy’s piano to “move forwards” is particularly obtrusive in the finale’s lyrical episode, where the piano “accompaniment” consistently threatens to drown Previn’s sensitively-drawn orchestral line. I suspect that this is not so much down to Ashkenazy, who is perfectly capable of playing delicately, as it is to some “fader-fiddler” in the control-room.

Prokofiev starts his second movement in very much a Classical vein, so it would seem reasonable for the soloist to enter at the tempo established by the orchestral exposition. Marshev does just that, and it sounds so right. Ashkenazy doesn’t – he slows it down! and it sounds wrong (at least, it does now!). Thereafter, although everyone keenly captures the characters of the variations, it is Marshev, less driven in the “driven” variation, who carries the “Classical” feel right through the movement. Yet, and as if to underline my comment in the previous paragraph, it is Ashkenazy who most effectively provides a quality of disembodiment in the “impressionistic” variation. Like Ashkenazy and Previn, Marshev and Willйn start the finale at snail’s pace. However, the latter opt, not for a gradual increase of pace, but a relatively sudden “take off”, whereby they seem to release more “bounce”. In the central episode, the SJSO may not be as fine-spun silken as the LSO, but their playing is more dolce, and even more heartfelt. In Marshev’s hands the reprise is not so propulsive. It is less visceral, but Marshev puts the elbow-room to good use, being the more effervescent. For all his hair-raising articulation, especially of that blood-curdling cycle of dovetailed chords, Ashkenazy rather dashes off the coda. Sadly, that comment is not a prelude to a Marshev “coup”: those fiendishly difficult dovetailed chords are not so well brought off, and somehow the “tune” gets a bit lost behind all the rhythmic figurations.

The Fourth Concerto must surely rank alongside Ravel’s D Minor, as arguably the finest commissioned by the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein. I can remember arguing with the late, lamented Adrian Smith about “left hand only” piano concertos. Adrian agreed that it was, of course, right and proper that a one-armed pianist should have one-handed music to play. However, performances of that same music by two-armed pianists with, effectively, one hand tied behind their backs he regarded as ridiculous displays of virtuoso vanity. As he could play the piano and I can’t, I found that hard to counter. In any event, I have to admit that it does seem to make sense: redistributing the notes between two hands will render the music easier to play, and hence will “free up” the player to concentrate better on his or her interpretation. It’s a thought, isn’t it? Moreover, it provokes another thought: when we hear a CD of such a work, we don’t actually know how many hands the player is using.

In his detailed, eleven-page booklet note, Daniel Jaffè gives a lucid explanation of Prokofiev’s compositional strategy. I would quibble with his description of Ravel’s concerto as a “brilliant show piece [sic]” – the Ravel is almost always described as “dark-hued” or “sombre”, though this has nothing to do with any technical limitations, and everything to do with what Ravel was trying to express in his music. Prokofiev, on the other hand, modifies his instrumentation for purely technical reasons: he both darkens his orchestral palette and slims down the orchestra’s size, to compensate for the piano’s perceived handicap.

Ashkenazy and Previn make a splendid start, Ashkenazy positively sizzling over the keyboard, and Previn splashing PLJ over the basically “peaches and cream” orchestral sound. The good, clean recording, relatively well-integrated, captures the crisp sparkle of the incisive higher notes without sacrificing the deep “boom” of the bottom. Yet, the whimsical Marshev is still more magically mercurial, defter and lighter of touch, with Willйn’s orchestra sympathetically less fulsome. Marshev’s piano lacks the bass solidity of Ashkenazy’s, although this is not down to the recording because the thudding of the SJSO bass drum has all the subterranean substance your bottom could desire.

The Danacord team manage to stretch the second movement to some 13 minutes, fully four minutes or, to put it even more dramatically, around 45% longer than the Decca timing! This is an alarming difference, especially when you consider that the movement is marked “andante”, plain and simple, with not even the excuse of a water-muddying “assai” to hide behind. By rights, it should sound dreadful – but it doesn’t, far from it. Marshev and Willèn do a magnificent job of conspiring to control the contours of the movement (and so they jolly well should, seeing as it was their fault that it was so stretched out in the first place). Delicacy is rife, lending comparative power to the moments of greater amplitude and revealing certain acidic elements including a dissonant pang near the end that eluded the more lustrous Decca team. Wisely, Marshev resists any temptation to stress the bass notes on the bar-lines, thus avoiding the lumps that Ashkenazy, sadly, puts back into Previn’s carefully-stirred custard. Tender, nostalgic and thoughtful, Marshev’s performance is thoroughly absorbing and convincing in itself but that doesn’t explain why it has to be so damnably slow.

The third movement is one of those that brings home how beautifully rounded is the tone of Ashkenazy’s piano. He plays most charmingly, demarcating the shifting moods through a nigh-on perfect balance between sweet and bitter combined with some suitably subtle variations of tempo. As ever, Previn’s LSO is smooth, full-toned, colourful and – of course – too far back. Marshev’s piano is lighter and a tad harder of tone, but is well-suited to his delicately crystalline approach. Although their timing is almost identical, Marshev and his cohorts use wider extremes of tempo to impart a greater sense of playfulness though, I should add, sometimes these “kiddies” play rough. Marshev’s deftness is complemented by Willйn, who capitalises on the SJSO’s more slender sound to neatly delineate the sweet/bitter quality of Prokofiev’s music.

The concerto’s finale isn’t, not really – effectively picking up where the first movement left off, it’s more of a nifty little postlude. In the first movement’s concluding brass chord Previn had ferreted out a strange, elusive quality that seemed to leave the music up in the air, and this (of course) makes perfect sense when you hear their finale, which to my ears sounds to set off at the precise same tempo. The Danacord lads don’t quite match this trick: perhaps surprisingly, their brass chord is slightly less clean, that elusive quality eluding them, and their finale “picks up” at a slightly faster tempo. Purely in terms of playing there is little to choose between the two, but fluffing that crucial connection has to cost Marshev and Willйn something in the region of half a brownie-point. In case you’re wondering: at no time did I become suspicious that either Ashkenazy or Marshev was making sneaky use of any otherwise idle digits!

Daniel Jaffé suggests that the underlying tenor of the Fifth Concerto was prompted by, of all things, a boxing match. Yet, the very opening of the concerto seems to be haunted by the shade of the yet-unborn Cinderella ballet. Maybe, then, the slapstick antics of the Ugly Sisters shared the same inspiration, who knows? The Decca lads are on top form – their sound is superb, full, with supremely ripe brass and a tuba that would have given Hoffnung an orgasm, yet glittering and incisive. Moreover, the soloist and orchestra for once seem to be pretty fairly balanced! Ashkenazy flits through the first movement like quicksilver, and renders the runs in the second as showers of burning ice. Appropriately, he pulls no punches in the third, ripping into the music with a fleet fury that is reflected in the electrifying orchestral playing. Contrariwise, in the fourth movement he renders the cascades of notes with shimmering delicacy whilst Previn finds a hint of Copland in the orchestral texture. Their relentless drive through the first part of the finale is moderated by bounteous sparkle . . . need I say more?

Well, the Danacord sound is much less ample and “in yer face, but Marshev and Willèn find, if not more light, then certainly more shade the first movement’s central “dreamscape” is slower, quieter, and more introspective. In the second they are far more capricious and tongue-in-cheek – Marshev even finds a little “rock ‘n’ roll” in the quick variation, and by initially underplaying those runs comes out the more electrifying when he does cut loose. In the third movement, they are just as fast and furious, but (dare I say?) more lightweight, more attuned to Prokofiev’s toccata marking, more poised and playful. Marshev, by keeping things simple and avoiding Ashkenazy’s over-emphasis of the bar-lines, makes the fourth movement’s melody sound less four-square, more fluid. With Marshev, for once, yielding absolutely nothing to Ashkenazy in terms of sheer muscle, the Danacord forces mould the mighty climax with practically peerless insight, accentuating the soft core and subsequently carving a terrifyingly terraced crescendo.

To cap it all, they make the finale sound like almost a different piece of music! Marshev is more flexible, in terms of both tempo and dynamics, and he and Willèn elicit melodious moments that evaded the attention of Ashkenazy and Previn. The conclusion is remarkable: it sets off “in modo Percy Grainger strolling humlet” jaunty, jolly, brolly-swinging stuff. Then they accelerate, but unlike Ashkenazy’s and Previn’s headlong build-up, Marshev and Willйn stand back and remain internally flexible, you could say “ducking and weaving” until, seeing their opening, they strike like lightning to deliver a mighty knock-out punch. This on its own is almost worth the asking price!

I must give full marks to the magnificent efforts of Danacord’s production “team”, whose recording shows no obvious signs of its troubled birth. I did keep a “weather ear” on it, and if there is any perceptible inconsistency, I give it a big tick for ducking completely under my guard. What the recording does reveal is the mesmerising array of orchestral details that Willèn pulls out of Prokofiev’s top hat. Inevitably, this fine resolution comes at a small cost: the sound, whilst nowhere near boxed in and desiccated, is just a little on the close and “dry” side, but very pleasant on the ear withal. Most importantly, this Danacord set offers fresh, original views of what had seemed to be repertoire so well-trodden that it was ripe for a preservation order. Once upon a time, if I had been exiled to that legendary desert island, the Decca set would have gone with me. Now . . . well, I’m not so sure!

Paul Serotsky

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Shostakovich

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB
January 2003

Shostakovich concertos

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C minor, op. 35 (1933)
Piano Concerto No 2 in F, op. 102 (1957)
24 Preludes for Piano, op. 34 (1932-33)
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Helsingborg SO/Hannu Lintu
Recorded 29 July – 2 August 2002, Konserthuset, Helsingborg
Danacord DACOCD 601 / 76.52

It must have been knocking on for forty years ago that I read a review of a recording of Mahler’s First Symphony penned by the late, great Deryck Cooke. With so many recordings of the work already in the catalogue, he argued that the only possible justification for bringing out yet another was to produce an outright winner. What followed in that review could be summarised in four words: “ – and this is it.” That’s my opening gambit done for a Burton, so how then do I start this review?

Well, it will have to be “Rather more prosaically,” but stick around – it won’t stay that way for long! The prosaic fact is that, before I say anything else, I must “declare an interest”. It’s nothing to write home about, really, just that having written the booklet note I can’t comment on its quality. Other reviewers will perhaps fill you in.

The experience did teach me a fair bit about the company, though; not so much facts and figures (for those, you can look at www.danacord.dk), but more about their entire attitude and approach to making records. In nature’s realm, it’s generally the case that the smaller the brood, the more care the parent takes of each individual offspring. Something similar might be said of companies. Vast, pan-global industries churn out CDs like frog-spawn, their instincts geared to survival of the species rather than individual progeny. Danacord, as a small company with a rate of production (or should that be “reproduction”?) rather more akin to that of the Giant Panda, by comparison lavishes bags of tender love and care upon each offspring. Our expectation, that we should therefore find issues more thoughtfully conceived and of a consistently higher individual standard, tends to be confirmed by a quick trawl through their extant Musicweb reviews.

Anyone who has admired the Danacord presentation of the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos set will equally admire this one. The art-work (see illustration) is based on a colourful and atmospheric painting by Alexy Lieberov. This is reproduced both on the inside of the back cover and on the CD itself, so that when the disc is placed in the transparent tray the continuity of the scene is preserved. Need I say that to benefit from this neat effect you do have to line it up accurately?! The booklet is tidily laid out, including all pertinent details except, oddly, any identification of the subject of the painting. As well as the usual photographs of the soloist and conductor, there are a couple of the young Shostakovich and on the back cover a shot of the HSO players involved in the recording. This last is truly splendid, because it’s not the usual “ochestra at work with faces all fuzzy and anonymous” sort of thing, but a proper group photograph in which every individual can clearly be seen as a friendly face. I rather like that.

Although alternative versions of Shostakovich’s two piano concertos have never burdened the CD catalogue quite as much as the Mahler First, we are still fairly spoilt for choice. Hence, I do wonder: is the only possible justification for bringing out yet another still to produce an outright winner? Exercising marginally more caution than Deryck Cooke, I’ll add, “- and is this it?” Ever responsive to such promptings, my subconscious mind appends a marginally less cautious, “Very probably,” so now I’ll have to justify it!

With a combined running time of a little over 40 minutes, the two piano concertos were a convenient pairing on LP. However, because of its greater popularity, recordings of the Second were often paired with something else. As dim and distant memory serves me, there was a stubby-fingered but loveable Bernstein LP which had the Ravel Concerto in G on the flip side. On CD though, 40 minutes is a bit mean, so (if you’re lucky) there’s a “make-weight”. With up to 35 minutes to play with, companies have a golden opportunity to exercise a bit of imaginative programming.

For example, Dmitri Alexeev’s excellent Classics for Pleasure recording included something of a rarity, The Unforgettable Year 1919. That’s all very nice of them, but his short (and I mean short!) concertante piece, with its origins in a film score and its rather nice (though I’d hesitate to say “unforgettable”) tune, would have fitted rather more comfortably on CfP’s disc of Warsaw Concerto (et al.). Turning to the recording that currently graces my collection, EMI and Cristina Ortiz give you, at about three minutes, the fantastically brief Three Fantastic Dances for solo piano. Now, that would be mean indeed, were it not that the two-CD set also includes Berglund’s brilliant Sixth and Eleventh symphonies!

Yet, neither of these examples shows any real imagination. Without wading through the catalogue with a fine-tooth comb I couldn’t swear to this (so please correct me if I’m wrong), but I think that no-one has ever coupled the the piano concertos with the Twenty-Four Preludes Op. 34. If I risk discounting a few juvenilia (like the Aphorisms, a smaller batch of Preludes, and those Three Fantastic Dances), I think I can fairly say that the Op. 34 Preludes are the very platform on which Shostakovich set out his considerable pianistic stall. Not only are they a pivotal work, but also they are intimately connected to the concertos. Now, this adds up to not just a bit of imaginative programming, but a bit of truly brilliant programming.

It feels like I’ve heard more performances of these concertos than I’ve had hot dinners, and in both cases few of them were “turkeys”! However, aware of the tricks the memory (especially my memory!) can play, I’m going to limit any comparisons I do make to the Ortiz/Berglund recording.

Even the mere mention of the name of the pianist on this CD will have many seasoned MusicWebbers scrambling eagerly along that well-worn bee-line to their preferred record suppliers. This wouldn’t surprise me, because Oleg Marshev is a thoroughly remarkable phenomenon, who has already been documented in some detail in other MusicWeb reviews of his work.. In these days, when every young pianistic pretender is dubbed “virtuoso” almost before he or she is even out of nappies (or daipers, if you prefer), Marshev is not a virtuoso. Why not? Because he is, first and foremost, a musician. Don’t get me wrong: he can mix it with the best of them when it comes to dazzling digital dexterity, but it isn’t top of his list of priorities. Having sampled quite a few of his recordings, including both concertos and solo works, the overriding impression I get is of a “Barbirolli of the keyboard” – the quality that shines through, again and again, is unashamed love for the music he is playing. At each and every turn, he seems to be asking not “What can I do to show myself to the best advantage?” but “What should I do to show the music to the best advantage?” I’m not claiming that Marshev is alone in this, any more than Barbirolli was, but like JB he is one of a rare breed whose affections radiate, even through the impersonal filter of a recording.

Although Shostakovich’s two piano concertos have very distinct (and distinctive) characters, they do have some things in common. For example, both are very carefree works (here I’m hoping that nobody takes the “doom-laden” centre of the First even remotely seriously!), and both are unusually scored for relatively small forces – the First for strings with obbligato trumpet, while the Second is for a “classical” orchestra, without trumpets, trombones or tuba but including an “obbligato” part for snare drum. This is significant: Shostakovich, even more than the Ravel of the G major Concerto, nips in the bud any possibility of neo-Romantic heavyweight fisticuffs between the modern concert grand and the modern symphony orchestra. (in this light, could perhaps that pianistic ruck in the middle of the First be seen as parody, or even sarcasm?). By paring down his orchestra, Shostakovich instead points the piano in the direction of agile articulation, clearing the decks for lithe athleticism in the First, “Haydn-esque” humour in the Second, and sublimely slender, saccharine-tinged romances in both.

Another consequence is that on this CD we hear only portions of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. Like the WDRSO on the Brilliant Classics set of the symphonies, the HSO is a provincial orchestra, similarly and gratifyingly endowed with endearing qualities, notably a richly communicative, down-to-earth character and palpable enthusiasm for the music they’re playing. The HSO does of course lack that intercontinental gloss that these days seems to be de rigeur but, as it happens, “gloss” is something these concertos can well do without. On the other hand, the HSO is not short on the sort of inciseveness that can cut blond hair lengthways, which, equally “as it happens”, is something on which these concertos positively thrive.

Having said that, you won’t be surprised when I say that the body of strings is on the small side. This might well be a budgetary imposition, but it actually sounds far more like a shrewd artistic strategy, as Hannu Lintu harnesses their slimline strengths into a marriage of chamber-style delicacy and balletic muscularity. In the faster music of the First Concerto, they are so nimble and fleet of foot that, unlike other more plushly upholstered string bands, they skitter over Shostakovich’s pellucid textures like pebbles skimmed across a frozen lake. In the slower music, and especially the “bar ballad” of the second movement, their lightness of tone and keenness of intonation are melded into sweet and soulful intimacy. class=Section2>

The trumpeter is Jan Karlsson, who has stepped forward from the ranks of the orchestra.. I’m told that he declined to have even a brief note about himself put in the booklet, basically on the grounds that he is simply a loyal member of the orchestra doing his bit when called on, and he doesn’t want any sort of special treatment at the expense of his colleagues. Well, I’m sure his colleagues will understand, because he’s going to get some from me! His playing, like his loyalty, is almost beyond praise (I’m only really saying “almost” because nobody’s absolutely “perfect”). His execution is nigh-on flawless, dispatching his part with both flair and a good deal of wit, admirably complementing Marshev’s flying fingers. At the other extreme, namely near the end of the slow movement, he finds smoky langour in his muted crooning of the main theme.

Even the sound he makes has a distinctive quality. Many years ago, when I was a student, I knew this other student who was a cornettist in a brass band, and (in common with all British brass band players) a real fanatic. In all innocence, I wondered why it was that brass bands included cornets but not trumpets. He gave me a withering look, and retorted, “Because cornets can ‘trumpet’ when they need to, but trumpets can’t ‘cornet’!” The relationship of this tale to the price of eggs is that since then I’ve often thought that Shostakovich’s trumpet part might have been better given to a cornet, especially when it comes to the rumbustious allusion to Der Liebe Augustine, a tune as ripe for a bit of “cornetting” as you’re likely to encounter on the concert platform. The point is that this trumpeter comes nearer to “cornetting” than any trumpeter I’ve ever heard – rarely has the piano’s scrunching comment seemed more like a hearty elbow in the ribs! Impressed? You will be.

It’s strange how you can go along for years and fail to see something that’s staring you in the face. Listening to this recording I was taken aback to realise that apart from the pianist the only clear solo line in the Second Concerto belongs to the snare-drummer! True, a bassoon opens the proceedings (this bassoonist would make a sprightly grandfather in Peter and the Wolf), but this is its one and only solo, and it lasts scarcely a couple of bars. Considering Shostakovich’s fondness for woodwind solos, I somehow don’t think this was an oversight. The effect, of course, is to focus attention more sharply on the busy piano part, so it probably has something to do with paternal pride: the work was conceived as a birthday present for his son, Maxim, who was at that time a budding pianist.

Having been “robbed” of the opportunity to shine individually, the HSO winds are utterly unfazed and busily apply themselves to shining collectively. In a work where I had, over the years, become accustomed to the winds sounding vaguely monochromatic, largely differentiated only into “dark” and “bright”, Hannu Lintu coaxes from his willing troops a fascinating diversity of textures that my ears simply hadn’t noticed before. Of course, it helps to have no more than a svelt string body to penetrate, but then that’s all part of the “shrewd strategy”, isn’t it?

Right, add the HSO, Hannu Lintu, and Oleg Marshev together, and what do you get? Well, the sparks fly, but not quite as you might expect. My faithful old Ortiz/Berglund recording, which used to sound so vivacious, by comparison now sounds dull. Ortiz herslef is articulate and alive, but her piano sounds ponderous. The Bournemouth SO string section, itself hardly the most populous, does come across as a bit opaque. With equally “one size fits all” winds I suspect matters might not have been helped by the recording, which lacks a sparkling edge. On the other hand, when Joanna MacGregor played the Second with the Slaithwaite Philharmonic under Adrian Smith a year or two back, the slow movement was meltingly delicate, and in the outer movements sparks flew in all directions! It was superbly played, but the problem was that it was just a bit too “hell-for-leather”, rather too much “Beethoven” and nowhere near enough “Haydn”.

Marshev’s piano is very much “up front”, but is nevertheless beautifully balanced against the small orchestral forces. The quality of the piano sound makes an important contribution. It’s hard to describe, but (inevitably) I’ll try. Imagine a very clean sound, having a full dynamic range but with scarcely a trace of the “velour” resonance that tends to flesh out the sound of a powerful modern piano. Better, imagine the transparency of the “authentic” early-Romantic piano married to the purity of tone and dynamic stability of a thoroughly modern instrument. Under Marshev’s fingers it can slice like a rapier, it can “glitter and be gay”, it can drip dewdrops of sound, and it can bash out a thunderous bassline without becoming merely “thunderous”.

The upshot of all this is a pair of performances of remarkable clarity and insight. Where required, there’s plenty of “welly”, but there is hardly a moment passes in which you don’t feel the shade of Haydn hovering within the music. To my mind, they don’t put a toe (never mind a whole foot!) wrong in the First Concerto, where Shostakovich’s musical imagination is positively running riot. In the first movement, Marshev is only marginally faster overall than Ortiz. However, his moderato is a bit slower, making his playing of the vivace episodes not only relatively quicker but also, by virtue of the crystalline ensemble and scintillating fingerwork, positively tingling (the prefix “spine” is omitted entirely on purpose!). The slow movements of both concertos are a lot slower than Ortiz (in both cases, nearly a minute longer than her average of seven minutes). Taking all the time in the world is fine in the First, where the movement is marked “Lento”, but might be questioned in the Second’s “Andante”. However, Marshev and Company come up trumps: by letting in some air they give themselves an important bit of elbow-room in which to wax poetic, and then proceed to take full advantage of it.

Contrariwise, Marshev takes the First’s tiny third movement (marked “Moderato”) quicker than Ortiz. By not lingering, he points up the parallel with the famous bridge passage in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, similarly placed and having a similar function. Performance-wise, the finale picks up where the first movement left off, the lazy, thigh-slapping heft of that tune for “cornetting” trumpet made, by heightened contrast, into a leery joke in the worst possible taste, which is exactly how it should be!

Turning to the Second, I encountered my one brief moment of doubt. After the relaxed and aimiable tune, shouldn’t the central episode of the first subject have a bit more verve? Afew moments of reflection yield the answer “no”, because the two episodes are “in tempo” – like the “horse and carriage” of the old song, they go together. Of course, a few pianists of a particularly virtuoso inclination are tempted into hoicking up the tempo. Both Marshev and Ortiz, to their credit, don’t. Ortiz, at a faster basic tempo, gains on the “verve”, whilst Marshev wins on the “aimiable”. Interestingly enough, the second time I played Marshev’s performance of the movement, it already sounded “right”, which says much for his perception of the tempo – the “verve” lies not in the tempo as such, but in the “attitude”. The climax of this movement is superb. The build-up at the end of the development digs deep into the style of Rachmaninov in barn-storming mood, with the rampant piano surmounting the orchestra. Yet, when the music spills over into the reprise on that characteristic unison tutti, Marshev’s piano is exactly where it should be, embedded in the body of the orchestra, reinforcing the massive effect.

Lintu and Marshev match Berglund and Ortiz almost to the second in the finale, but the story remains the same: the Danacord artists find much more sheer fun and “punch” in what is effectively a slapstick “boxing match” between the two incongruent themes.

Overall, the real joy of these recordings is not simply Marshev’s thoughtful and articulate readings, it is not simply the Helsingborg orchestra’s clean-limbed playing, steered with wit and zest by Hannu Lintu, nor is it simply the admirable clarity of the recording, which fails miserably to sound the least bit “dry” as a result! No, it is all these together, a production which as a whole conspires with considerable success to exceed the sum of its parts. There’s not much comes my way that brings with it such unalloyed pleasure.

I’ll bet you’re thinking that I’ve forgotten about the Preludes! At over 33 minutes, they are a very substantial complement to the concertos. They have little in common with their magisterial predecessors, the Preludes of Chopin and Debussy, largely (I would guess) because they were written for a very different purpose. Ranging in length from a maximum of no more than 2’31 to a mere, minuscule 0’31, you could fairly call them “pithy”. Some of them are a bit like Webern, though mostly only inasmuch as Shostakovich seems to have the same knack of making music that plays tricks with the listener’s sense of time.

This performance provokes a palpable sense of peering over the shoulder of the composer in his workshop, trying his hand at all the different styles and techniques he’s encountered, sifting and searching for the common thread of his own individual voice amongst it all. It’s a feeling that is heightened by the numerous occasions a movement sets off purposefully, only to peter out in apparently aimless doodling! Marshev’s playing seems to go right to the heart of this imagined scenario, drawing out rather than trying to conceal this vision of a composer “losing the thread of his argument”, of turning over his ideas and wondering what he might possibly do with them.

But they’re not all like that, by any means. Some of them jump up and whack your face with a smart idea, then just as smartly they are gone, leaving you with a smarting face. Again true to the scenario, a few (like the famous No. 15) emerge as perfectly formed little gems. Part of the wonder of discovering these Preludes lies in second-guessing what happens to each idea. How often were my expectations confounded, one way of the other!

I’ve no other recording to hand, so I can make no direct comparisons, but it’s nonetheless clear that Marshev brings to these solo pieces every bit as much consideration as he brought to the concertos. Tempi and tempo relationships always feel right, everything feels comfortable (which is not the same as “predictable”!), ebbing and flowing, inflaming and soothing entirely in sympathy with the musical lines. Moreover, each vignette’s character and style are captured to a “T”. I must confess a particular fondness for Marshev’s way with the bibulous little dances, which are made to lurch with delicious giddiness from one precarious harmonic pose to the next. Putting it in a nutshell, Shostakovich wrote and, it seems, Marshev plays what Shostakovich wrote.

The recording engineers, Lennart Dehn and Stephan Flock, have done a cracking good job. My one bone of contention – and, note, this is simply a matter of personal taste! – is that in the stereophonic image of the concert platform the piano occupies a rather large space. This is a distortion of perspective apparent only to hardened headphone users like myself. Through loudspeakers you are hardly likely to even notice it, never mind find it a problem. However, I must stress that this is distinct from the dynamical balance between the piano and orchestra. Although the piano is right at the front, which given the balance of forces is exactly where it should be, you can still hear everything that the orchestra is getting up to. The sound quality matches the piano and orchestra in its cleanliness and clarity, yet nobody is going to find any real trace of dessication in either the direct or ambient signals. Nigh on exemplary, I’d call it.

This issue has one very serious flaw that I feel duty bound to report. Simply, it may be too good. In this production Danacord have set themselves a very high standard: now they are going to have to work their socks off to maintain it, because as sure as eggs is eggs folk are going to expect lots more of the same!

By anybody’s standards, that adds up to something of a Cooke-style “outright winner”. I must admit, it’s set me wondering to what extent any reviewer who has “declared an interest” might thereby be influenced. Hum! Of two things I have no doubt. One is that you will, quite rightly, be wondering the self-same thing. The other is that I believe, hand on heart, that if I’d been less than enthusiastic about the CD, the combination of integrity and “interest” would have prevented me from submitting a review. I have simply commented as I found, so shoot me down in flames if you can. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this thought: remember whatit is that constitutes “the proof of the pudding”!

Paul Serotsky

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Rachmaninov

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB
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.

Continue reading CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Rachmaninov

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Hexameron

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB
October 2001

Hexaméron — Morceau de Concert

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) — Aprés un lecture dé Dante — Fantasie quasi Sonata

Henri Herz (1803-1888) “Les perles animeés” Grande Valse Op.211

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) Barcarolle Op.60

Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) Grande fantasie de concert sur l’opéra “La Traviata” de Verdi Op.78

Carl Czerny (1791-1857) Variazioni sopra un tema di Rode “La Ricordanza” Op.33

Franz Liszt et al Hexaméron — Morceau de Concert (contributions from all the above composers)

Oleg Marshev (piano) / Danacord DACOCD 530 / 76.51
Recorded in the Concert Hall Sonderborg, Denmark, April 1999

By any stretch of the imagination this is a very special and also quite unusual CD. Not only is it full of relatively unknown composers, it has one work that was written as a joint project between six composers. Each musician is represented by one original work and also his contribution to the joint project.

Continue reading CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Hexameron

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Sauer Vol.5

CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB

Emil von Sauer (1862-1942) Suite Moderne (1906) Aus lichten Tagen (Date of composition not known) Drei Konzertetuden (1910) Galop de Concert in E flat minor (1911) Oleg Marshev (piano) Rec. Mantzius Garden, Birkerod, Denmark, Feb 2003, Steinway Model D piano. Suite and Galop de Concert (Volume 5 of complete works) DANACORD DACOCD 595 [61.25]

One of the things that annoys me most about some reviewers and musicologists is the ‘Macbeth’ approach to composers who are not noted for there propensity to push the limits of composition to new and further bounds.

Continue reading CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB. Sauer Vol.5