March/April 2006

The Early Brahms
Piano Sonata No. 1, Op.1. Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9. Four Ballades, Op. 10
Oleg Marshev (pf)
Danacord DACOCD 643

Oleg Marshev has tackled a very wide range of Romantic repertoire on disc, including a series of Danish Romantic piano concertos and the piano music of Emil von Sauer. Here he turns to music that is more mainstream, though with the exception of the Ballades these works are not as frequently heard as they might be. Brahms’s C major Sonata is in fact his second work in the genre (the first was the F sharp minor op.2). Like Mendelssohn’s op.106, the shadow of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” looms large in the opening gestures, but already Brahms’s individual voice makes itself heard, particularly in the slow movement variations.

The work demands a strong and reliable technique, and Marshev is fully equal to the task. He drives tie scherzo and finale along at pace and with unstinting belief in the score. In the slower moments he finds poetry without being sentimental, and has a good feeling for pace and structure.

The Variations on a Theme of Schumann are primarily tragic, reflecting Schumann’s institutionalisation during their composition. Marshev gives a very fine performance indeed, with the closing adagio particularly timeless and poised.

It is the Ballades that offer the greatest interpretative challenge here. Marshev does not quite eclipse memories of Gilels in “Edward”, but he is distinctive and sensitive throughout. Tempos are well-chosen and not too fast, and in the quieter music he allows Brahms to speak with eloquence and a gently unfolding narrative. The scherzo-like Third Ballade is not pushed too hard, so that its central section appears to unfold naturally, and the fourth points the way towards Faure’s harmony and textures.

These are extremely good performances, naturally recorded and well worth investigating.

John Kersey