This is an excellent disc in a number of ways. One
of its characteristics is that it is a condensed survey of the entire
piano music output of Rachmaninov. Let me explain.
There are three works on this disc; the Five Fantasy
Pieces Op. 3, the Second Piano Sonata in B flat minor and
the Corelli Variations. Now the Opus 5 was written shortly after
the composer's student years came to an end. The Piano Sonata
dates from his fortieth year and the Corelli Variations was the
very last original composition for piano, being written in 1931. However
that is not all. Two of the Five Fantasy Pieces were revised
as late as 1940 and of course the Piano Sonata was itself reworked
by the composer eighteen years after it first performance. So we have
a conspectus of Rachmaninov's achievement over a period of nearly half
Of course this is not the only attraction of this disc.
Oleg Marshev is one of the best of the new generation of Rachmaninov
interpreters. It is a superb addition to the vast number of discs we
It is not my intention, in this present review to consider
the merits of which version of the Sonata is most appropriate
to play. I have considered this and the background to the Sonata in
some detail in a recent appraisal
of Martin Kasik playing this work on Arcodiva UP0018-2-131. There
I suggested that the original version was becoming the norm and that
much of interest was lost when Rachmaninov revised the score. I still
hold to this opinion.
Oleg Marshev brings a superb understanding of this
great work to this recording. Every nuance is noted. This is a sonata
of great contrasts that tests the pianist's abilities to the utmost.
There are so many notes and so much activity. The interpretation of
the dynamics is an art in itself. For example, in this recording the
middle ‘movement’ is perfect; the climaxes in the first and last movements
are exciting and well balanced. One can only hope that one day he will
record the original version of this fine sonata.
The earliest work on this disc is the Five Fantasy
Pieces Op.3. Apart from the second piece, the ubiquitous Prelude
in C# minor, these are surprisingly little known. The opening number
is a rather attractive Elégie written in the typically
Russian key of E flat minor. It has been likened to Tchaikovsky's 'September’
from his lovely Seasons Op. 37. Yet on further reflection it
possible to see a theme that was to run through Rachmaninov's entire
opus - the obsession with death. Although it is not quoted one expects
to hear the Dies Irae at any time in the opening bars. However
the piece soon changes its mood and before long we have a lovely flowing
melody complete with appropriately romantic harmonies. This is really
quite an inspired little piece written when the composer was nineteen
The second piece is depressingly popular. For many
listeners it is, perhaps, after the C minor Piano concerto, Rachmaninov's
best-known work. He had to play this Prelude at virtually every recital
he ever gave. He was never allowed off the stage until it was given
as an encore. He was known by the sobriquet of 'Mr C# minor'. He referred
to it as ‘It.’ Yet the strange thing is that this is actually a very
fine piece. This Prelude can be by no other composer than Rachmaninov.
It is good if we can somehow bring an innocent ear to it. This prelude
is a powerful piece that uses typically descending melodies and complex
The Mélodie is another little known piece
that deserves to be played at recitals in spite of the fact that it
has a salon music feel to it.
The Polichinelle, which is the first of the
five pieces to lift the prevailing sense of gloom, is a riot of notes.
Octaves, trills and complex figurations give this piece a complexity
that makes this a virtuoso showstopper. Here is a portrait of Pulcinella
or a clown. It is interesting to note that Arensky's 2nd
Suite Op.23 has a similarly titled first movement. Tanyev and Paul
Pabst played this Suite for two pianos in Moscow shortly before Rachmaninov
embarked on the composition of his pieces.
I think the Serenade is the least successful
of these early pieces. It is based on a Spanish theme but that is perhaps
just a personal preference. Rachmaninov himself is known to have liked
both the Serenade and the Mélodie and came back
in later years to revise them.
Oleg Marshev brings his usual superb technique to these
works. He plays them with conviction and understanding. He gives as
much attention to the detail of these early pieces as to the Sonata
and to the Corelli Variations. He is not tempted to allow the
frankly sentimental nature of these Fantasy Pieces to cloud his
judgement in playing them with good taste.
The Corelli Variations were composed at 'Le
Villa' in Clairefontaine in 1931. It was during Rachmaninov's last French
holiday. He started work soon after his arrival there and the work took
some three weeks to complete. There is some doubt as to whether the
composer knew that the theme he used was not actually by Corelli. Barrie
Martyn suggests that Rachmaninov may have first encountered the tune
in Franz Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody. He had added this piece to
his repertoire around 1920. It is also possible that the tune was introduced
to the composer by the violinist Fritz Kreisler- who would most certainly
have known the Corelli 12th Violin and Harpsichord sonata.
However this period of music was not normally of interest to Rachmaninov.
He dedicated his Variations to the great violinist.
There is certainly a change in the prevailing style
of Rachmaninov's piano writing between, say the Chopin Variations
and the present piece. It is often said that this piece was a trial
run for the great Rhapsody (which is most certainly not a rhapsody)
on a Theme of Paganini. The writing seems to be more ‘Spartan’,
if this is the correct word to use. The Variations are written fundamentally
in the composer's favourite key of D minor. The work opens with the
lovely, haunting theme. The first thirteen movements are all in this
key. However after an interesting cadenza there is a modulation into
D flat major. This is the heart of the work. Soon the prevailing D minor
tonality returns and this leads the work to a fine coda. However, the
big surprise of this work is the quiet, tranquil ending. Oleg Marshev
is able to bring out all the contrasts and all the subtleties of this
music to advantage. Rachmaninov’s entire stock of keyboard devices are
used to make this a well-balanced and well-rounded performance.
This is a lovely CD. Danacord have a winner with Oleg
Marshev. In my forthcoming review of Marshev's and Danacord's Complete
Piano Music of Prokofiev I shall give some details of Marshev’s
career as pianist. Everything he touches seems to be excellent. Whether
it is the complete piano works of Prokofiev, the Paraphrases of Paul
Pabst, the music of Sauer or the Richard Strauss Piano Sonata he reveals
understanding, technical competence and perhaps most of all that indefinable
quality of sheer magic.
The CD gives 67 minutes of music and has good programme
notes. It is to be hoped that Marshev and his recording company choose
to make some more recordings of the great Russian master.
He compares admirably with Biret, Shelley and even