Recital in Velenje, Slovenia (Brahms, Ravel, Liszt) 27.10.2016
Oleg Marshev spiller overbevisende materialet pв sin nye CD Un recital”. Forse og fremmest er det en god blandning af vaerker – polske Chopin, ungarske Liszt og russiske Scriabin – dernaest er det en pianist, der kan noget mere end blot lire ballader af. Marshev er skraemmende god pв tangenterne, og man nyder hans selskab – han har noget pa hjertet.
Oleg Marshev far virkelig tangenterne til at danse pв sin nye udgivelse fra det danske pladeselskab Danacord. Hans 3 valse af Chopin er ikke blot velvalgt,men i hoj grad ogsб velspillet. Selvfolgelig er Chopin en yderst prekaer komponist, og hans vaerker er mesterstykker for piano – hvilket ikke gor Marshevs projekt nemmere. Albummet бbner med tre vaerker af ungarske Frans Liszt.
Marshev spiller sig elegant og stilsikkert igennem, isaer Rhapsodie espagnole er vaerd at fremhaeve. Dernaest de omtalte valse af Chopin plus en ballade. Sа er tiden kommet til den russiske komponist Scriabin, der med sine vaerker stаr som en af Ruslands allerstorste. Han levede i perioden 1872-1915 – en periode, der ogsб rummede det russiske komponist- og klavergeni Rachmaninov – og man kan uden tvivi fornemme de romantiske suk i Scriabins musik. Marshev har et godt tag i Scriabin, og speciale de to marzurkaer (Op. 40) er flot fremfort.
Oleg Marshev, pt. bosiddende i Italien, er blevet rosi til skyerne i forskellige internatinnale sammenhaenge, ikke mindst klassiske tidsskrifter som Pianist Margazine har givet den russiskfodte pianist venlige ord med pа vejen.
Marshevs spillestil er da ogsб praeget af en eminent forstаelse og laesning af de respektive vaerker. Han kender sit materiale til fingerspidserne, og det er disse fingerspidser han med omhu og elan saetter pа klaveret. Ikke mindst udvalget pа denne CD repraesenterer Marshevs greti; Scriabins Preludes, op. 15 af en ung mand pа 23, et sted mellem 1895-96, bliver i haendeme pа Marshev til en brusende folelse af vemod og laengsel.
Det romantiske suk haenger ved en laenge efter man har Iyttet til CD’en. Det er tydeligt, at Marshev giver lidi af sig selv pб denne udgivelse, og man fornemmer et behageligt temperamene, der indfanger den osteuropaeiske tone, som alle tre komponister pа hver deres mаde repraesenterer. Og det er ikke en bedrift, det er alle vel undt at slippe godt fra, men Marshev far sin CD til at haenge sammen pа en mаde, der vel mбs siges at vaere hans stil, hans saerkende.
Marshev har i sine tidligere udgivelser taget favntag med de allerstorste, og man kan kun opfordre manden til at fortsaette. Og gerne mere fra de osteuropaeiske mestre, tak.
Ude pв CD fra Danacord
2007 KuItuNaut.dk – Email: kuItunaut@kuItunaut.d
OLEG MARSHEV IN RECITAL
Oleg Marshev has recorded all of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra, and is one of the few pianists who has inhis discography more works for piano and orchestra than solo recitals. Critics around the world praise his releases, however, this new recording, made straight after a successful New Zealand concert tour, may be his best. Never has the Liszt Funerailles sounded so devastatingly tragic, the Spanish Rhapsody so super virtuosic and the Chopin so stylish and brilliant. The real revelation comes with the last Scriabin pieces which are quite simply ravishing in their beauty and where one really can say that the piano sings. Round up many of the younger pianists mentioned earlier in this review, and they will sound grey by comparison. If ever you wake up one night and question what piano playing is all about, the answer lies right here.
Oleg Marshev displays a super-size virtuosity
An astonishing release from a pianist perfectly attuned to this repertoire.
Chopin Three Waltzes, Op 34. Ballade No 4,Op 52 Liszt Funerailles, S173 No 7. Rhapsodie espagnole, S254. Etudes d’execution transcendante, S139-No 10 Scriabin Mazurkas–Op 25No 3; Op 40 Nos 1 & 2. Poemes, Op 32. Preludes, Op 15. Vers la flamme, Op 72
Oleg Marshev pf
Danacord DACOCD677 (79′ • DDD)
This recital shows Oleg Marshev’s formidable powers in a dazzling, ultra-Romantic light. Yet his super-size virtuosity – a place where muscles bulge and ripple – is backed by a no less enthralling musicianship. Marshev’s earlier record of the Liszt-Tausig Tasso will have alerted even the most blase virtuoso-fancier to exceptional powers and here in the Rhapsodie espagnole he sets all guns blazing, sinking up to his shoulders rather than mere elbows in an engulfing brilliance. His Funerailles, too, is hypnotically graphic and threatening, building remorselessly to a ferocious climax, and in the tenth of the Transcendental Etudes there is a superb sense of its appassionato F minor turbulence. Such virtuosity is scarcely less visceral in Chopin, with the closing pages of the Fourth Ballade heated to boiling-point, though relaxing in a selection of waltzes into an open-hearted relish of everything the composer has to offer. Poised and patrician in Rubinstein’s or Lipatti’s sense he may not be, but he makes it impossible to resist such character and liberation, such rich and lavish musical breathing. Marshev is on home ground in Scriabin, memorably attuned to his volatility and introspection, to those startling shifts of mood and emphasis at the heart of his bewildering genius. This is an astonishing, all-stops-out release, beautifully recorded. And how gratifying to know that there are many more on the way.
With realistic and immediate piano sound, Oleg Marshev’s rigorous yet emotional account of Liszt’s great B minor Sonata is a compelling journey. It’s a work often recorded and several new versions have appeared recently; Marshev’s is a considered view, a rendition of insight and experience – and trust in the composer. Marshev sees the work whole and he is not afraid to shape with feeling the lyrical episodes or to make turbulent the climactic ones. But these are not incidental ‘happenings’: they are parts of Liszt’s grand design, and whether Marshev explores the recesses of the music or is turbulently opening it out, the connective tissue is audible. In short, Marshev has recorded a considered and individual version of a great masterpiece, one that serves the music yet also illuminates the music afresh.
The other pieces on the disc are more familiar as orchestral works. Tasso is one of Liszt’s fascinating symphonic poems, and while the varied colours of the orchestra are, of course, somewhat ‘lost’ on a piano (for all its ‘orchestral’ properties), Carl Tausig’s transcription is very effective. The short-lived Tausig (he died aged 29), a pupil of Liszt’s, made this arrangement of Tasso for solo piano after his master had made two of his own, one for two pianos and one for piano duet. Marshev gives a remarkably convincing account; strikingly so at the dramatic opening and with real heart in the ‘lamenting’ section. The dance, at the middle of the work, is less convincing in pianistic terms, but ‘triumph’ is here heroic, which certainly describes Marshev’s assumption of the work.
‘Gretchen’, the slow movement of Liszt’s A Faust Symphony would have been better placed between the Sonata and the (transcribed) symphonic poem (how to follow the end of that!); the composer’s arrangement of his description of the unsullied Gretchen works very well in the ‘black and white’ terms of the piano and is played with sensitivity and character by Marshev to complete a release that includes a commanding version of the Sonata.
I’m not Liszt’s biggest fan, but Marshev has made me love what I merely admired, admire what I merely respected and, to cap it all, he’s even managed to make the boring bearable.
Just lately, Liszt has got me a bit puzzled. Forget the famed and fкted of the Nineteenth Century opera stage they were small beer when compared with Liszt, the man who kick-started the entire modern concept of “stardom”, with all its attendant adulation and excessive income. Then, quite suddenly, in a plot twist worthy of the grandest of soap-operas, he “dropped out”, abandoning the bright lights in favour of a quiet life as Weimar’s Kapellmeister. However, that isn’t what’s bothering me. After all, whatever his reasons, this radical career-change was entirely his own choice. So, what is my problem? Well, the more overtly challenging of his two piano concertos and his imposing Piano Sonata are both obviously intended as showpieces with which he could “wow” his fans – aren’t they? I’d have thought so. In fact, that’s exactly what I did think until, in the wake of my recent review of the piano concertos et al, it finally penetrated my thick skull that these were both written after his sudden retreat from stardom. Now, that does puzzle me.
I hadn’t long been puzzled when this CD landed in my lap. Hoping for effort-free enlightenment, I read Malcolm MacDonald’s booklet essay. Sadly – for me – this otherwise excellent piece of writing didn’t come up with the goods to slake my lazy aspiration. However, by way of compensation, what it did do, admirably well, was to nip in the bud my embryonic impression that this CD was “a bit of a bran tub”.
To varying degrees, the genesis of each piece owes something to our old friend, Goethe. The arrangement of Gretchen from the Faust Symphony is too obvious to require any elaboration from me. Perhaps a bit less blatantly obvious is Tasso, where the inspiration of Goethe’s play Torquato Tasso is confused with another that of Byron’s Lament of Tasso. Finally, and far more tenuously, there’s the case of the formidable Sonata. MacDonald cites Claudio Arrau, who claimed that “it was believed in Liszt’s circle that the Sonata was a rendering of Goethe’s Faust, Part One”. I’d take that with a pinch of salt even at first-hand something “believed” is pretty well apocryphal. Nevertheless, regardless of any “belief”, if you so incline your fancy then you can indeed interpret Liszt’s musical drama in terms of Goethe’s scenario. For what it’s worth, I find that my fancy inclines mostly towards Liszt’s choice of title – simply “Piano Sonata”, although this may have something to do with my somewhat woolly recollections of the dramatic details.
One thing, however, is absolutely certain: this is one “helluva” sonata! I was first introduced to it by Ken Chilvers, a chap I got to know at Huddersfield Recorded Music Society. Through his enthralling presentations supplemented by many casual conversations, I and quite a few others – gradually gained the fairly justified impression that what this “piano freak” didn’t know about pianists and piano music just wasn’t worth knowing. Sadly, it’s now many moons since Ken traded his mortal coil in favour of the great Piano in the Sky. Yet, I do have something by which to remember him, as I “inherited” a few recordings, including a double-album (Etcetera ETC 2010) of Earl Wild playing a pile of assorted Liszt. this one a fully-fledged, card-carrying “bran tub” that just happens to be spearheaded by the Sonata.
Arguably, it is the “Parnassus” towards which Clementi’s “Gradus” guided aspiring pianists. Listening to it, I get a distinct impression that Liszt, the incipient High Priest of the High Romantic, was aiming to produce nothing less than the piano virtuoso’s “Bible”. He seemed to be taking every single limit of pianism both technical and expressive – and pushing it as far as the elastic would stretch. I suppose this would be why, having at one extreme sorely strained the player’s sinews and at the other wrung his nerves through a mangle, Liszt then and only then! – confronted him with arguably the greatest test of all, in the form of a fearsome fugue. This is music intended, in no uncertain terms, to sort out the men from the boys, and indeed the women from the girls.
When he made the Etcetera recording, Earl Wild was already about 70, with a long-established and enviable reputation. I have it on good authority i.e. Ken’s! that Wild’s recording is somewhat better than average. This opinion is confirmed by my own ears plus sundry other delicate and possibly unmentionable sensibilities. Released in 1986, it’s a fairly early digital recording which is probably why, in spite of their having a good, firm bottom, my LPs sound a bit brittle on top and overall a little on the papery side. Although Wild can – and does – play with great tenderness in the delicate passages, in those infamous cataracts of pulverising passion he fully lives up to his name. The overriding impression is that of a pianist of immense authority occasionally sailing too close to the wind. On the whole this is surely a Good Thing because, in this of all works, nothing short of busting a gut will do.
If there’s any truth at all in that last comment, then this sonata represents possibly the supreme challenge to a pianist of Oleg Marshev’s relatively unusual disposition. As is intimated in the booklet’s short article-cum-interview with Harriet Smithson, it is often enough noted that Marshev’s playing, by putting the good of the music over any virtuoso self-regard, speaks of overriding affection for whatever he is playing. Time and again, through evidently thoughtful circumspection, he produces performances that, at some inevitable but usually small cost in sheer visceral excitement, endear themselves to the listener’s ear. To some extent, this means that he is careful to stop at least a whisker short of busting a gut! Maybe this gives you some idea as to why I listened with particular interest.
The most immediate difference is that the Danacord recording has a much more even, rounded tone. Unfortunately, this faithfully captures not only Marshev’s playing, but also a few noises that I wouldn’t have expected from a Steinway. One the other hand, these the occasional “release twang” and a few other minor “buzzes” are not particularly obtrusive. To be fair, as well as sounding generally a bit on the jangly side, Wild’s piano suffers similar symptoms. Was this just coincidence, or had their pianos fallen prey to a mild form of the same malaise that reputedly afflicted pianos in the wake of Beethoven’s not-so-tender ministrations?
This thought led me to wonder whether Liszt, on top of “destruction-testing” the player, might similarly have intended to test the instrument’s endurance. That speculation might seem a tad cynical, but I couldn’t help noticing that, in those infamously massive crescendi, both Wild and Marshev come down on their keyboards like pile drivers. At first it seemed to me that Marshev was less hell-bent on pummelling his piano to a pulp. However, closer comparison revealed this to be nothing more than an artefact of his purer-toned recording. So, although it doesn’t immediately feel like it, Marshev in fact yields little to Wild in terms of sheer brutality.
At the other dynamic extreme, Liszt’s musical musings find even Wild’s sensitive artistry conceding to Marshev a marginal first place in my two-horse race. Although exemplary, the latter’s characteristic delicacy of touch is marginally below his extraordinary best. Thus, in what I suppose we should call the “second subject”, he not only imbues the tender line with some meltingly beautiful tone but also, with feather-light fingering, “floats” the fairly busy accompaniment. So many otherwise fabulous pianists seem to fall into the trap, when looking after a lyrical line, of apparently letting the accompaniment look after itself and yet, it seems to me, if anything it should be the other way round! There’s a similar tale to tell when you consider articulation, where Marshev is consistently the cleaner of the two, particularly under stress. No matter how fast he plays, there’s hardly ever any hint of hurrying and, no matter how forcefully he plays, few notes ever receive more or less than their due weight.
It’s true that these are but details, but such details are also the bricks from which the edifice of a performance is built. It follows, I suppose, that we must also consider the mortar, without which any performance will be as a house of cards! Here, the mortar comes courtesy of what we might call “ethnic background”. Wild, the Pennsylvanian, welds his Sonata very much along traditional Western European, even (should I dare to say this where Liszt is concerned?!) Brahmsian lines: coordinated, integral, architectural, his eye fixed firmly on the “long view”. Marshev – who hails from Azerbaijan is more volatile, more passionately involved with the “here and now” and by comparison, we might say, keeping but half an eye on the “long view”. In their different ways, though, both offer balanced perspectives.
Consequently, I find it very hard to prefer one over the other. Marshev better matches my own temperamental tastes: I find myself swept up by the sheer intensity of his involvement with the musical drama. He pushes the tempi further towards their extremes – to the extent that, although his “first movement” (track 1) playing time is practically identical to Wild’s, Marshev reaches the latter’s “five-minute” point nearly a full minute sooner! Extreme it may be, but there is nothing forced about it the music slips from Marshev’s fingers as naturally as the blarney from an Irishman’s tongue. Yet, for all Marshev’s lithe flexibility, there are moments when the wily Wild steals a march on him. Take for example the culmination of the fugue: Wild knows just when – and precisely how hard to “punch”. Seemingly with nothing more than a single, deft flick of his wrist, he catapults the climax on its way. That’s a trick that the much younger Marshev still has plenty of time to master.
Who better captures the spirit of the music? That depends on what you think is the spirit of the music. Well, let’s assume it actually does relate to the apocryphal “Mephistophelean” scenario., By “sailing too close to the wind”, Wild effectively expresses the diabolic quality inherent in the feeling of “strain under stress”. Does Marshev, by keeping a millimetre back from the edge, therefore miss that quality? On the face of it, yes but then again, maybe he does catch it, in a less obvious way. Think about it: it’s not all that long ago that such seemingly effortless dexterity, albeit on a violin, raised in the hearts of many good men certain sinister suspicions of “pacts with the Devil”.
No, I haven’t forgotten the other two works on the disc, although there is a sense in which I wouldn’t mind doing so! In my review of Chitose Okashiro’s remarkable “Mahler First Symphony”, I had a stab at categorising the reasons for making arrangements. For the category of these arrangements, my first guess is “pre-gramophonic” – the piano reduction is the Nineteenth Century equivalent of a CD. Whilst, I imagine, the Gretchen arrangement would have served this purpose nicely, the Tasso one would probably have stretched the abilities of your average household “CD player” to breaking-point so I think I can safely say that Tasso belongs in the “virtuoso” camp.
However, and this is the source of my reservation, in contrast to Okashiro’s undoubtedly virtuosic Mahler, neither Gretchen nor Tasso brings any sort of new insight listening to them is a bit like watching a colour film in black-and-white! Liszt himself made two arrangements of Tasso, one for two pianos and the other for piano duet, so it seems that even he thought it a bit of a handful (ouch!). The solo piano arrangement by Carl Tausig, reputedly one of Liszt’s finest pupils, is so superbly and idiomatically crafted that, in a blind test, I’m sure I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish “arr. Tausig” from “arr. Liszt”. Albeit posthumously, Herr Tausig can take that as a compliment!
Currently available recordings of these pieces seem to be a bit thin on the ground there are several recordings of Gretchen but, as far as I can gather from a quick skim, only this one Tasso. Not to worry, Marshev is well up to the standard he’s displayed in the Sonata. This isn’t surprising, really, because the two works together cover pretty similar technical and expressive ground.
Marshev applies himself to the musing and ever-so-mildly capricious Gretchen, which could have been made for him, with such loving tenderness that I became quite concerned for the purity of the maiden. This was moderated by the considerable care exercised over line and “shape” Marshev is clearly well aware that over a quarter of an hour of Lisztian doodling, bereft of Lisztian orchestral colour, needs all the help that it can get. All right, I’ll come clean! This is not entirely my cup of tea I can’t help thinking that, whilst it was being arranged, it would have benefited from a spot of editing (ha! I should talk!). Even so, it was well worth the wait to hear Marshev’s exquisitely graded conclusion. As the music faded from merely quiet to the merest whisper, even his little broken chords remained immaculate. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll definitely like this.
Tasso, I hardly need to say, is a different beast entirely. It’s much more akin to the Sonata there are barns to be stormed, gloomy depths to be plumbed, and ecstatic heights to be scaled. Marshev respectively storms, plumbs and scales with great gusto. Neither is he found even the least bit wanting when it comes to the “long view”. He navigates convincingly – and with commendable command – from “lament” to “triumph” via the connecting wistful “minuet”. In Marshev’s hands, played with his almost inevitable charm, this is no passing interlude, but a sort of “Purgatorio” linking “Inferno” to “Paradiso”. Yes, I know that’s Dante, not Goethe, but who’s counting?
Come to think of it, if you’re going to listen to this CD in one gulp, I’d suggest programming it in the track sequence 1-2-3-5-4 to my immense surprise and pleasure, I discovered that I actually appreciated Gretchen more when it was thus enfolded, rather than tagging along like an afterthought.
By now you’ll probably have gathered that I’m not exactly Liszt’s biggest fan, although I hope you’ll also have gathered that I nevertheless do enjoy a bit o’ the old Liszt, even without a prefatory “Brahms and”. Much as I’d have liked to say otherwise, this CD did not come as some divine revelation. Even so, it still did me a power of good. Having, over the last few weeks, listened to the Sonata several times, it has gone up in my estimation by leaps and bounds. Admittedly, Mr. Wild did have a hand in it, but this is mostly due to Oleg Marshev, who has worked his particular magic on me, yet again. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s made me love what I merely admired, admire what I merely respected and, to cap it all, he’s even managed to make the boring bearable.
I approve of the ‘modesty’ of this recording. So often, piano concerto recordings of the Romantic era beleaguer the ears in an attempt to underline a soloist’s brilliance. Frequently everything is ‘up-front’ and on some occasions it is only the piano that is ‘up-front’ while the orchestra provides a mushy accompaniment.
This is not the case with this honest release; if sometimes a little shy in the woodwind department, the engineers here match the unfussy style of the playing. Interestingly and in my view, appropriately, the recording gives the piano a fair degree of stereophonic ‘spread’ with highs on the left and lows on the right except when loud passages throw up the occasional acoustic reflections from the piano lid, but then that is a normal concert-hall phenomenon.
Oleg Marshev is flowing in style, the First Concerto is full of invitations to lean heavily on meaningful phrases but this pianist accepts none of them. The scherzo in particular has an eager fluidity and for once the solo triangle is strictly rhythmical. On the other hand, the full orchestra has an almost chamber-like quality at times and this makes the slightly dry acoustic sound rather small at the beginning of the finale. This is nevertheless a refreshingly performed movement because there is no hint of the bombast that many interpreters impose on it.
It could be argued that the Second Concerto is more thoughtful in character and certainly this suits Marshev’s style. The unusual inter-linked form, with slowish movements placed first and third, makes it difficult to distinguish the work from an extended ‘fantasy’. Marshev is nevertheless able to give individual character to each section and the excellent cello soloist in the soulful solo midway through the third section deserves special mention. The delicacy of the high notes in the final pages is one of the more subtle effects amid a forceful peroration.
The two remaining pieces are geared towards a virtuoso soloist to an even greater extent than the concertos and the massive flurry of notes at the start of Totentanz makes it clear that Marshev is certainly not going to take a chamber-music approach here. The make of piano used for this recording is not specified but here is music that exploits its particularly rich lower register. True there are showy cadenza passages but largely Liszt is at pains to exploit the dark, threatening nature of the ‘Dies Irae’ (Day of Judgement) theme throughout.
By contrast, the Hungarian Fantasia represents outgoing virtuosity from beginning to end. The weighty introductory sequence is wonderfully anticipatory of the fireworks to come and once again Marshev is reticent in his approach to the virtuoso writing, which, while still exciting, has yet to get into full flow. Around halfway through, the pianistic demands become increasingly great, as indeed does the speed. Amid all this, the soloist’s attractive characteristic of unflinching momentum, evident in the concertos, becomes even more evident. Liszt does indeed throw in contrasting quieter moments but Marshev gives a sense of forward motion in even the gentlest of passages. The showers of notes are thrown off with deceptive simplicity and however rapid the pace the phrasing is shaded with great precision. This work is certainly the least intellectual one on the disc, but Marshev treats it with an admirable combination of musical respect and pianistic virtuosity.
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.
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.