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.

Paul Serotsky