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
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
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
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
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!