GAZZETTA DEL SUD
March 3, 1995
Il pianista russo protagonista di tre serate consecutive
Marshev virtuoso di razza con rilevanti doti di tenuta
MESSINA – È possibile, dopo un programma monografico su Prokofiev, conversare amailmente col publico sulle scarse fortunc di Medtner in rapporto ai contemporarei Rachmanininov e Scriabin, e dopo il bis dedicato a Medtner, snocciolare con assoluta sicurezza lo Studio op.10 n. 1 di Chopin (vale a dire la summa della tecnica deg1i arpeggi)? È possibile mantenere questo genere di freschezza per tre serate conseculive a regalare al pubb1ico persino qualche Studio trascendentale di Liszt?
Tanto è possibile se ci si chiama Oleg Marshev, il pianista russo, autentico virtuoso di razza, che ha eseguito in tre concerti, proposti da1la Filarmonica Laudamo, le nove Sonate per pianoforte di Prokofiev. Bisogna subito premettere che, a parte le rilevanti doti di tenuta, Marshev ha proposto un’Integrale di alto l ivello, considerato che l’impegno implicava prob1emi esegetici almeno pari a quelli strumentali: si consideri che il corpus proposto copre un arco di tempo lunghissimo (1909-1947), quindi non ci si può limitare a univoche dezinizioni di stile, ma bisogna dare adeguato conto di un percorso creativo a lunga gittata evolutiva. Marshev ha ottenuto tutto questo: le esecuzioni hanno palesato lo sforzo di diversificare i vari momenti stilistici, ed alcune hanno ampiamento superato il livello dell’irreeprensibile accademisrno esemplificativo.
November 23, 1999
Symphony’s Russian program rich in technical virtuosity
ASHEVILLE – Playing the impassioned, exciting music of three great Russian composers, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Hart Baker was in top form Saturday evening before a large audience in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
Although Asheville audiences are overly fond of responding to even the most mediocre performance with a standing ovation, Saturday’s efforts by orchestra and soloist -were richly deserving of the most emphatic accolade an audience can offer.
After a spirited performance of Tchaikovsky’s crowd-pleasing “Marche Slav,” the orchestra and distinguished young Russian soloist Oleg Marshev presented a masterful interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev’s formidable “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26.”
In recent years, Asheville audiences have heard no pianists, with the exception of Dmitri Ratser, capable of meeting the huge technical demands of this work. Marshev has in abundance the virtuosity, the grand keyboard flourishes and the showmanship, which declare him a true artistic descendant of Rachmaninoff and more than a match for Prokofiev, the pianist-composer.
CLASSICAL MUSIC ON THE WEB
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!
The five piano concertos
Oleg Marshev (pf); South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willèn(cond)
Danacord DACOCD 584-585
It says a lot for a record company like Danacord that it is prepared to stick with its artists enough to entrust them with the repertoire that’s as popular as the Prokofiev piano concertos. With a pianist like Oleg Marshev – who has the complete Rachmaninov and Shostakovich concertos, complete Prokofiev solo piano music, von Sauer sonatas and studies, and much more under his belt for the Danish label – there was no doubt that the Marshev Prokofiev concerto cycle was going to be something to look forward to. But is it individual enough to stand out against the crowd?
The short answer is: yes. First of all, Marshev’s playing is spectacularly good: his passagework is briliantly sure-footed and his tone full-bodied. It’s the tone, in fact, that points the way towards the individuality of this cycle. Most pianists approach the Prokofiev concertos as if they were the first of the modern age, all rattling toccatas and mechanical energy. Marshev, a romantic pianist par excellence, is not a cavalier with the past. His Prokofiev is a less-aggressive creature than usual; in Marshev’s hands these concertos appear an evolution to be from Romantic period rather than a revolt against it. He is especially keen to let Prokofiev’s gentler passages sing, finding lyricism where other pianists tend to be brittle. To be sure, the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra isn’t quite the Berlin Phil, but under Niklas Willèn they play with considerable flair, sympathetically following Marshev’s understanding of the music. I would have preferred a warmer string sound, and less of an edge to Marshev’s piano tone in the louder passages. But these are minor caveats: there’s nothing here that will blunt your enjoyment of the music. The booklet contains a fine extended essay by the Prokofiev biographer Daniel Jaffй. Outstanding!
Piano Concertos Nos 1-5
Oleg Marshev (piano); South Jutland SO/Niklas Willйn
Danacord DACOCD 584-585
This set is a revelation. Instead of the routinely hard-edged piano sound that so many pianists bring to these works, Marshev offers a rounded, beautiful tone that genuinely draws you into the music, while in no way undercutting its virtuoso drive. In the Second Concerto’s massively difficult opening movement, Marshev’s command amazes, as does his deft touch with the attractive and rarely heard Fourth (for left hand only). The orchestral accompaniments, too, are seriously good.
Prokofiev Piano Sonatas 6, 7 & 8
The Top five discs
…The expressive depth of these sonatas is unprecedented in Prokofiev’s work. They are also technically among the most daunting works ever written for the piano. The challenge for any pianist is to surmount their technical difficulties in order to fully reveal their expressive content. Drawing up a shortlist of recordings has highlighted casualties from recent deletions such as Peter Donohoe’s EMI cycle. Of complete recordings still available but not shortlisted, Ashkenazy’s on Decca sounds impatient and aggressive, as if he’s played the music too often. John Lill (ASV), living up to his reputation for stolid reliability, shows no feeling whatsoever for Prokofiev’s lyricism. Yakov Kasman’s complete sonata cycle on Galliope is a bargain on just two discs; his readings are dramatic, but tend on the eccentric, even; rather more fatally, there are times when his technique is not quite enough to master Prokofiev’s sometimes terrifying demands. The few pianists who meet Prokofiev’s challenge are:
- Berman: scrupulous
- Chiu: dazzling but dry
- Richter: raw brilliance
- Ovchinikov: fresh view
- CLASSIC CD CHOICE — Marshev: conviction
It would be foolish to pretend that Oleg Marshev gets everything “right” — no pianist has. For instance his Eighth Sonata, though memorably chilling, misses aspects — particularly the charm of the central movement — revealed by Richter and Ovchinikov. His performances are outstanding, though, not only for his impeccable technique and sense of poetry, but above all his sense of conviction: one always feels he knows what he is doing and is “living” the music.
His Sixth Sonata is easily the most convincing on disc, capturing both the unpleasant aggressiveness of its opening theme (taken at quite a deliberate but convincing speed) and the sensuous beauty of the contrasting lyrical second subject. After a sardonic second movement come the heart of the sonata, played daringly slowly with plenty of rubato: the result is wistful and genuinely “felt”. as if recalling a poignant memory. One might quibble that Marshev does not fade to pp at the movement’s end as Prokofiev asks, so missing some of its “sting in the tale”. The finale shows off his brilliant technique, and he captures perfectly the sheer panic that grips the music after the reappearance of the first movement’s men-acting motif.
Better still is his Seventh Sonata, with a particularly stunning central movement (track 14 on our cover CD) and propulsive finale.
The Eighth Sonata appears on a separate volume of Marshev’s complete Prokofiev piano series. On the plus side Marshev’s characterisation of the “musical box” theme is chilling and yet utterly haunting. That and the artfully created sense of weary disorientation add to a powerful conception, but anyone wanting a rounder picture of this work may be tempted to buy the Richter disc instead to go with Marshev’s Sixth and Seventh.
Prokofiev piano works
Volumes 1 and 2. Oleg Marshev (pf). Danacord (Full price) (CD) DACOCD391/2 (two discs: 74 and 64 minutes: DDD).
DACOCD391: Sonatas-No. 6 in A, Op. 82; No. 7 in B flat, Op. 83. Dumka. Visions fugitives, Op. 22.
DACOCD392: Sonatas-No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1; No. 8 in B flat, Op. 84. Four Pieces, Op. 3. Three Pieces, Op. 59. The tales of an old grandmother, Op. 31.
Oleg Marshev’s Prokofiev is the complete antithesis of Chiu’s. Marshev prefers the dynamic, full-throated volcanic approach (though he is certainly not afraid to allow lyricism into the music when called upon to do so) and he is also more of a charismatic performer, allowing greater interaction between pianist and music, and hence greater involvement for the listener. Volume one of his complete survey opens with a commanding, virtuosic performance of the Sixth Sonata which compared to Chiu simply teems with detail and subtle nuance. The second movement Allegretto is delivered with tremendous flair and elan in the outer sections, and the phlegmatic third movement is beautifully paced and crafted. Marshev unleashes the full power of his formidable armoury in the tumultuous finale, where in the closing bars he almost hits boiling-point in terms of sheer virtuosity; his performance may not quite reach those of Kissin or Pogorelich but this is certainly a recording that I would be happy to live with. In contrast, the early Dumka (here receiving only its second recording) is given a beautifully poised and effortless reading, and the same can be said of Marshev’s extremely fine account of the Visions fugitives, which can be added to the growing throng of commendable recordings in the catalogue. Marshev concludes the first volume with a stunning account of the Seventh Sonata, which to my mind approaches Pollini’s classic recording for its breadth of vision, dynamic control and sheer virtuosity; pianistically it has all one could wish for-superb rhythmic impetus, tremendous force, wonderful phrasing and in the slower, more reflective moments beautiful tonal control and expressive nuance. The fearsome, toccata finale can only be compared to Pollini’s scorching reading for its accuracy and heart-pounding excitement, and indeed after his recording this would be my clear first choice. Recording is full bodied.
Marshev’s second disc is every bit as impressive as his first. The short, youthful First Sonata can only be played for what it is, a tremendous outpouring of late-romantic gesture-and that’s exactly how Marshev tackles it; the result is one of the most authoritative and impassioned, romantic performances on disc so far. Berman’s account on Chandos has been my first choice up to now, but I have no hesitation in promoting this newcomer as my primary recommendation. Berman of course is the obvious point of reference for the shorter pieces presented on this disc too, and although Marshev’s performances of The tales of an old grandmother and the Four Pieces, Op. 3 and Three Pieces, Op. 59 do not possess the same degree of delicate shading and coloration as Berman’s, they are nevertheless imbued with great sensitivity and poise; the Op. 59 pieces, I thought, were particularly well drawn and enjoyable. Sadly, Marshev lets the side down rather badly in the first movement of the Eighth Sonata (allegro moderato, bar 90 onwards), where he goes against the written pianissimo and piano markings by playing mezzo forte and forte-no one has ever quite matched Richter’s spellbinding reading of this passage. That flaw is a pity, when in all other aspects this is a very fine performance, not least his exceptionally serene and lyrical account of the slow movement. The recorded sound of both volumes has a slightly over-resonant bloom (especially in the more forceful passages), but otherwise is nicely focused and warmly atmospheric. I greatly look forward to future installments in this cycle.
Marshev displays piano playing that reaches beyond all boundaries and one becomes euphoric listening to this genial music in such genial performances. No-one should deny themselves the overwhelming experience of hearing piano playing of this calibre.
Danske indspilninger af Prokofievs klavermusik med den russiske pianist Oleg Marshev. Og hvilken pianist! Det er klaverspill, der tager vejret fra én.
Oleg Marshev er tidligere blevet hyldet i disse spalter som solist i Rubinsteins 3. og 4. klaverkoncert på Danacord. Nu har samme tapre og ufortrødne lille danske pladeselskab kastet sig ud i en komplet optagelse af Prokofievs solo-klavermusik med samme pianist, og de to første CD’er varsler et projekt af tåmhøj kvalitet. Dette er ganske enkelt mageløst! Marshev er omkring de tredive, teknisk er han så formidabel, at man tier i tavs beundring, og kunstnerisk er han på højde med de største. Der er ting her, der næppe kan være gjort bedre nogen sinde! Niels Viggo Bentzon udtalte engang, at de tre betydeligste klaversonate-komponister i det 20. århundrede var Skrjabin, Prokofiev, og Niels Viggo Bentzon. Han havde mindst 33 1/3% ret, for Prokofievs ni sonater er så stolt en række, som nogen komponist kan rose sig af. Nr.1, op.1, er en ung mands glæde over sin virtuositet som komponist og pianist, vel ikke særlig originalt, men medrivende og herlig musik. Krigstrilogien nr. 6,7 og 8 må høre til det betydeligste, der er skrevet for klaver i dette århundrede. De to lange ydersonater indrammer den korte, bryske nr. 7, men er vidt forskellige, nr. 6 aggressiv og rytmisk vital, nr. 8 lyrisk og melodiøs, men med gnistrende virtuos udfoldelse i finalen. Her viser Marshev klaverspill, der sprænger alle rammer, man bliver euforisk af at lytte til denne geniale musik i denne geniale udførelse. 7. sonate er med sin blanding af lyrisk romantik og agressive rytmiske udladninger endnu et højdepunkt. I tilgift til sonaterne får vi den for nylig fundne lyriske Dumka, de Skrjabin-inspirerede klaverstykker, op.3, de lyriske børnefortællinger op.31 og de ægte prokofiev’ske tre klaverstykker op.59, alt i en udførelse, der får én til at måbe og frydes. Men måske er det allerbedste ved siden af 8. sonate de flygtige syner, “Visions fugitives”, op.22 (1916-17), tyve ultrakorte, fintslebne diamanter, der afleveres netop sådan.
Ingen bør snyde sig for den omvæltende oplevelse det er, at høre klaverspill af dette karat.