The Pianist. Rachmaninov Concertos

October 2002

Complete piano concertos (1-4); Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Aarhus Symphony Orch/James Loughran (cond)
Oleg Marshev (pf)
Danacord DACOCD 582-583

Few British music lovers have heard the young Russian pianist Oleg Marshev live; he seldom appears in the UK, but having listened to his complete recording of the Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra, I’m hoping that British agents will be rushing out to sign him! Right from the start – from the first movement of the first concerto – Marshev’s technical polish, dramatic sense of timing and dynamic involvement with the music hit me in the face.

Before delving into pianistic detail, a few words about orchestra, known to me only from its sensitive Delius recordings. Too many recordings of the Rachmaninov concertos leave the orchestra in the background, as if it is merely accompaniment. Gustav Mahler asked Rachmaninov to give him more rehearsal time with the orchestra before a performance of one of the concertos at a New York concert; here too, James Loughran understands exactly how important it is to follow the long melodies and let the harmonies develop into the orchestral texture. When did we ever hear such committed understanding of a piano concerto from a conductor?

One can also compare playing times. In the Second Concerto, like Richter’s account with Wislocki and the Warsaw Philharmonic on DG, Marshev opts for a very slow performance and copes well with the long sustaining harmonies, not least thanks to fine string-playing in the orchestra. If you find the first movement of the gigantic Third Concerto a little on the slow side, you’ll be surprised at how logical it all becomes when Loughran and Marshev gear up for the last movement. It make sense not to rush headlong into the big climaxes straightaway. The first movement cadenza (the long original version) gives way to the heartfelt Adagio slow movement and then on to the tumultuous Finale as if building one huge Gothic arch.

The Fourth Concerto has always been thought of as the runt of the litter – for reasons unknown to me, as I find it totally compelling – but here, it is one of the best performances I’ve encountered. Marshev takes a lyrical and inward approach (unlike Michelangeli on EMI, who thunders his way through, leaving the orchestra to take of itself); his first movement possesses grandeur, never giving way to gushy sentimentality, and in the slow movement he leaves sufficient time to capture and respond to orchestral details. The Finale dances off the page. As a culminating treat, Marshev whisks off electrifying performance of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

While major record companies are busy reissuing compilations and producing all sorts of crossover music, it is often left to the minor record companies to produce truly astonishing releases. Here’s one that should not be missed.