The Early Brahms
Piano Sonata No.1 in C, Op.1
Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op.9
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Recorded in January 2005 in Symfonien, Aalborg, Denmark
A glorious record in every way, the latest of many that Danacord has made with Baku-born Oleg Marshev. For anyone unfamiliar with Marshev, this release could be a wake-up call, for he is a Brahmsian worthy of comparison with the very best.
The programme has been built with care. Recordings of Brahms’s early piano music are not too many – certainly in comparison with his later works; and the combination of the Sonata in C, Schumann Variations, and the better-known Ballades, make a remarkably satisfying combination and encompass a much greater variety than one might have imagined. The juxtaposition of these three works is also an instructive one.
Marshev makes the strongest possible case for the Sonata, all the more commendable since this is difficult music to bring off. In less sympathetic hands it can sound hectoring. Marshev holds power in reserve for the climaxes, yet what is most notable is the way he finds the distinctive character of each movement. The first is strong but with an inner stillness, the second ruminative, the scherzo has a fine swing (which anticipates that of the F minor Sonata, Opus 5), and the unbuttoned finale is youthfully exuberant.
Even better are the Ballades and the rarely-heard Schumann Variations. Schumann’s theme (from Bunte Blдtter) is ostensibly simple, innocuous even, which Marshev gives with distinctive poise and balance and each variation is vividly characterised. The Kreisleriana-like fast sections draw virtuoso playing, yet it is the reflective numbers, especially the ambivalent final Adagio variation, which linger longest in the mind. So too does Marshev’s treatment of the Ballades. What is so satisfying is the sense of a story being told. These are, after all, ballads and – like Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” – Marshev is a master storyteller, holding one’s attention in a vice-like grip. From “Edward” (the opening Ballade based on a particularly grisly Scottish tale) through to the deep contemplation of the final piece, its central section marked col intimissimo sentimento. This unusually extreme marking, for Brahms, draws from Marshev a dark, mahogany-like sound, the tempo expansive but never cloying. This is deeply-moving, supremely reflective playing.
The recorded sound is excellent, encompassing the heaviest passages with ease and conveying the sort of warmth that is not always evident on CD. Although it would have been nice to have the Variations separately banded, this is otherwise an outstanding release.