Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 (1845) [30:33]
Introduction and Allegro appassionato in G major, Op.92 for piano and orchestra (18:49) [15:48]
Introduction and Allegro Concertante in D minor, Op.134 for piano and orchestra (1853) [13:49]
Clara Wieck SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Concerto Movement in F minor for piano and orchestra (1847)[13:09]
Oleg Marshev (piano)
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ziva
rec. Alsion, Sønderborg, Denmark, 3-7 August 2009. DDD
DANACORD DACOCD 688 [73:41]
I was first introduced to Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor whilst still at school. I had been listening to my girlfriend of that time playing the opening salvos of Grieg’s concerto in the same key. I was impressed, naturally, and borrowed the score and an LP recording.
The sleeve-notes suggested that Grieg owed much to the Schumann concerto – in fact he had heard Clara play it in Leipzig in 1858. So the following day I began to explore the earlier piece. I must confess that it did not appeal to me quite as much as Grieg’s but as I have got older, I have come to enjoy and appreciate the exemplar as a beautiful and ultimately celebrated work.
It is beyond my ken to compare the 200 or so recordings of this concerto that are currently available. My criteria for awarding a gold star to any performance of this work are threefold. Firstly, do the soloist and the orchestra explore and reveal the structure and architecture of this work? It has been described in terms of being a ‘chamber’ work rather than a work in ‘heroic’ style, yet its ’emotionally charged’ nature should never be in doubt. Secondly, the technical requirement of this work is more in terms of a subtle exchange of views between piano and orchestra rather than in pyrotechnics. Does this work? And lastly – and perhaps most importantly – does the performance move me personally. On all these counts the present performance is extremely successful.
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.
Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886) Piano Sonata in B Minor, S178 (1852-3) [29:20] Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo Symphonic Poem (1849), transcr. (1858) Carl Tausig (1841-1871) [19:21] Gretchen, from A Faust Symphony, S513 (1854), transcr. (1856,1857) Liszt [16:08] Oleg Marshev (piano) Rec. Aalborg, Denmark, February 2006. DDD Danacord DACOCD 653 [65:16]
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.
WWW.MUSICWEB-INTERNATIONAL.COM August 2006
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, S124 (1849, rev. 1853, 1856) [19:06] Piano Concerto No. 2 in A, S125 (1839, numerous revs., pub. 1863) [21:48] Totentanz, Paraphrase on the Dies Irae, S126 (1849) [15:58] Hungarian Fantasia, S123 (1852) [15:14] Oleg Marshev pf Aalborg Symphony Orchestra / Matthias Aeschbacher Danacord DACOCD 651
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.
The late Schubert
Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat Major, D960 (1828) [38:15] Drei Klavierstьcke, D946 (1828) [32:20]
Oleg Marshev (pf)
Danacord DACOCD 646 [70.09]
For this release Danacord, the Danish-based independent label, have chosen Oleg Marshev as their soloist. He was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, then part of the former Soviet Union and also the birthplace of Rostropovich. Marshev trained with Valentina Aristova at the Gnesin School for highly gifted children and with Mikhail Voskresensky at the Moscow Conservatory where he completed his Doctorate in 1988. He was awarded the Diploma with Honour. Marshev plays these Schubert works on a Steinway Model D piano.
Schubert wanted to dedicate his Piano Sonata No. 21 to Hummel but his Austrian music publisher changed that distinction to Robert Schumann. In a review Schumann actually questioned whether or not the score together with the C minor and A major Sonatas were ‘last’ works as claimed.
Music writer David Ewen is of the opinion that the shadow of Beethoven hovers over most of Schubert’s piano sonatas but only in these last three sonatas can Schubert be said to be truly Beethovenian. The drama and majesty of the sonata has noticeable Beethovenian echoes although Schubert’s rich and deep trademark voice is overriding. Many musicologists consider this work to be his greatest sonata with its tonal daring, impressive harmonic sureness and consistently expressive pianistic treatment.
The first movement molto moderato starts off with an expansive and eloquent melody that concludes with a low trill in an air of mystery. The mystery deepens with the second subject which begins in the key of F sharp major and then lapses into F. The andante sostenuto movement is a continual ascent towards the sublime, the starting point being a poetic thirteen measure melody with religious overtones. The scherzo is remarkable for the variety of its harmony and the exciting alternations of major and minor. The allegro ma non troppo finale is once again Beethovenian in its storm and stress; it opens on a dramatic note in a foreign key.
Schubert scholar Brian Newbould described the Klavierstьcke as “precious examples of art-concealing miniaturism”. Einstein stated that these three substantial pieces parodied the popular styles of the day. It is thought that the 1828 Klavierstьcke were originally intended for a third set of impromptus. Critics have not always been kind towards them but, “they stand well enough” according to music writer and pianist Atesё Orga and “they occasionally reach the heavens”.
Oleg Marshev proves himself a sterling advocate of these scores. He is thoroughly musical, totally involved, produces an attractive tone and conveys a feeling of surety. In the sonata the difficulties and manifold mood changes of the opening movement are skilfully navigated. In the slow movement the pianist captures the contemplative and reflective mood superbly well. The short scherzo is dazzlingly performed with as much charm as one could wish to hear. The impressive Marshev interprets the dramatic concluding movement skilfully with considerable prowess. In this man’s hands Schubert’s ever-present mood of agitation and fervour is communicated most convincingly. Throughout the Klavierstьcke I was especially impressed with the way Marshev breaths life into the music with supple phrasing and subtle rubato. There never seems to be any hint of self-consciousness from this pianist who is to be congratulated for conveying the true spirit of the music.
The booklet notes which are packed with information are rather technical at times and the writing frequently borders on the incomprehensible. Wonderfully recorded sound from the Danacord engineers in a suitably resonant acoustic.