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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# minor Op.1 (1891)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op.18 (1901)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 (1909)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor Op.40 (1927)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A minor (1934)
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/James Loughran
Rec. Frichsparken, Aarhus, May/Oct 2001 DDD
DANACORD DACOCD 582-583 [3CDs: 165.38]

Most enthusiasts of the Rachmaninov piano concerti already know what version they like. For some, who are groupies, it is simply the pianist – be it Ashkenazy or Howard Shelley. Many of us will hark back to the first recording or performance we ever heard. For a large number of people their first exposure to Rachmaninov will be as a musical backdrop to Noel Coward’s great screen play Brief Encounter.

My first encounter with the ‘master’ was at school. We had gone on a trip to an early form of outwards-bound college. One of the masters, who shall remain nameless, was reputed to have fallen in love with the Latin Mistress. He arrived in the common room armed with a portable record player and proceeded to play Rach. 2 over and over again. A few of us, who were less inclined to be grappling with each other on the rugby field, were quite happy to sit with him and enjoy this music.

Soon we were joined by the maths master, who was also an accomplished pianist and organist. It just so happened that there was a piano in the room. Soon we were being given an illustrated lecture about the form and technique of this great work. I do not know if this technical stuff eased the heart of our lovesick French master, but it laid the roots of my lifelong passion for this work.

At about the same time as this my ‘first-love’ and I used to spend hours listening to this piece in her bedroom! Innocent activities in those days - with her parents ‘popping in’ with coffee and cake every few minutes!! Yet it was etched into my mind. The love affair with Margery came to an end – she met an American sailor. However my love of Rachmaninov has grown with each of the succeeding 30 odd years. Soon I discovered the other four concerted works. A trip, in 1974, to the City Hall in Glasgow to hear Vladimir Ashkenazy play, put the icing on the cake.

All of us have a favourite concerto. Mine is the Third (with Van Cliburn playing on Philips Classics 456 748). However it is very much a mood thing. People are often surprised just how unromantic the Paganini Variations actually are – with the exception of the purple passage. An old friend of mine cannot abide any of the concertos – because the first one he heard was the 4th. The Three Blind Mice motif in the second movement put him off for life. Many people write off the First Concerto as a failure. They are wrong. The bottom line is that they are a corpus – each one is important in its own right, but somehow related to one and another.

So it must be difficult when a pianist decides to record one or as in Oleg Marshev’s case, all of these famous works. They cannot really hope to bring startling new revelations to them. All must be conscious of the competition out there – both historical and contemporary.

Yet new recordings must be made; new attempts to interpret the works for each succeeding generation.

It is not the place to consider the history or the form of these great works – they are far too much a part of the repertory to gain from any kind of analysis in this forum. So my remarks will be confined to the presentation and style of these discs.

I think Rachmaninov can be interpreted in basically two ways. One is to emphasize or perhaps overplay the romantic fervour and the other way is to accentuate the ‘classical’ aspects. In addition, these concerti can be played more or less intimately.

Oleg Marshev chooses the big, energetic, romantic style of playing. His is a heaven storming approach. His prevailing style seems to verge on the ‘epic’ – which is all good and well. However I would have liked a little bit more intimacy where appropriate. And perhaps something of the Earl Wild gushiness!

I suppose that my personal crunch test for any Rachmaninov performance is the passage near the end of the second movement of the C minor. There is a gorgeous crescendo with large filled octaves for the soloist - gradually subsiding. This passage always gives me the ‘goosebumps.’ My test is just how far they go up my legs! With Marshev it is not very far – which is a shame, for generally his playing moves me.

I do not agree with other reviewers who criticise this recording for the longer than average play times of some of these movements. Jesper Buhl at Danacord has pointed out that James Loughran uses the composer’s own metronome marks as the basis of this performance. Before anyone complains that Rachmaninov’s own recordings are shorter, they must remember that in those days all music was inhibited by the length of 78rpm play times. I actually like the pace of Loughran’s interpretation of these concerti. It certainly allows the listener to appreciate much of the detail of the orchestration and the pianistic devices.

The slightly longer playing times necessitate these five works being issued on three discs as opposed to two. For example, the Third is allocated an entire disc. Martha Argerich on Philips has this concerto plus the Second Suite for Two Pianos, Op.17 (Philips 50 464 732 2). However, the cost of the Danacord is three CDs for the price of two. So, as a Scot, no real complaints here.

There is a nice Christmassy St. Petersburg scene on the cover which adds to the ‘feel good’ factor. The write up in the accompanying booklet is comprehensive. Included in this are useful discographies for both Marshev and the Aarhus Orchestra.

I must admit that the sound recording does not completely appeal to me. The piano often seems to have quite a hard edge to it – even in those passages that call for a considerable degree of subtlety. The sound can be over-bright in places.

But all in all this is a nice packaging of these gorgeous works. It is well worth exploring, even for those of us who already have our favourite versions constantly to hand. It would be sad if we were never to allow ourselves to be open to a new or slightly different interpretation of the standard repertoire.

I would heartily recommend Oleg Marshev and the Aarhus Orchestra to anyone who wishes to get to grips with these works. So unless you have a totally closed mind, listen to these ‘epic’ performances – add them to your collection. And do not get me wrong – there is intimacy here as well as romantic swagger – just not quite in the quantities of other interpretations.

And for lovers or ex-lovers amongst us, this music still manages to ease the heart like it did for my French master more than thirty years ago – I promise you!

John France


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