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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1 (1852-3) [29:07]
Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann in F sharp minor, Op. 9 (1854) [19:00]
Ballades, Op. 10 (1854) [23:22]
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Recorded Symfonien, Aalborg, Denmark, January 2005

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A valuable, well-played survey of some of Brahms’ most interesting early works for the piano, some of which are less often played and recorded than they might be.

Of the first five of Brahms’ works to be given opus numbers, three are piano sonatas, a fact which perhaps reflects Brahms’ own considerable accomplishments as a pianist. The first to be composed was the sonata in F sharp minor, though it was later designated Opus 2. The C major sonata with which Oleg Marshev begins his programme was the second to be composed. It is markedly classical in many respects, and it has often been pointed out that the opening allegro has affinities with Beethoven. Marshev plays it well, from the opening flourish to the tonally complex recapitulation. There is an impressive coherence to Marshev’s conception of the movement. The andante takes the form of a set of variations on a German folk song theme, played here with a winning quietness and reflectiveness. The passionate scherzo has plenty of fire and the trio has the necessary sparkle. The technical demands of the allegro finale (‘con fuoco’) are played with impressive clarity of articulation. Overall, Marshev puts the case for this early sonata very persuasively, and makes one wonder why we don’t hear it more often.

The Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann are heard even less frequently. A theme from the first of the Albumblätter from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter provides the starting point for sixteen variations, handled with great inventiveness and compositional sophistication. There are many musical echoes of work by Schumann: the ninth variation effectively paraphrases material from the second of the Albumblätter, the tenth quotes from the sixth of Schumann’s opus 5 Impromptus, and the same ‘theme of Clara Wieck’ is remembered in the final variation. The opus 20 of Clara Schumann herself is a set of ‘Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann’, the theme being the very one used for these variations by Brahms, one which Clara described in her diary as “that wonderfully heartfelt theme that means so much to me”. Through his choice of this particular theme, and through the allusions contained in his variations, Brahms was, effectively, making a musical statement of his emotional closeness to the Schumanns. There are some virtuosic fast variations, played in exhilarating fashion here, but Marshev also does justice to the melancholy quality of some of the slower passages - Schumann’s mental illness had already led to his hospitalisation when Brahms was writing these variations – and a tragic note is not far away in the closing adagio.

The Ballades are perhaps the most familiar music here. It was primarily of  the ‘ballad’ in the sense of a setting of a narrative poem (or such a poem itself), rather than in the sense in which it was employed by Chopin, that Brahms was thinking in these pieces. To the first of them Brahms added the inscription “after the old Scottish ballad ‘Edward’ in Herder’s Stimmen der Völker”. The original ballad is a menacing dialogue, between mother and son, from which emerges a revelation of bloody patricide and “the curse of hell”. The dramatic emotional power of Brahms’s response to this anonymous ballad is fully communicated through Marshev’s excellent judgement as regards dynamics and rhetoric. No specific texts seem to lie behind the other ballades, so far as is known. Even so the second seems to have a kind of narrative drive to it, especially as performed here. The fourth seems more lyric than narrative and draws some quite beautiful, slow intimate playing from Marshev. In the third the contrast between the hard-driven scherzo and the pianissimo legato is wonderfully expressive.

There are other fine recorded performances of the Sonata – by Katchen and Richter, both on Decca, for example - and of the Ballades, e.g. by Michelangeli on DG. These performances by Marshev don’t, of course, supersede such performances; but they are very fine and very well recorded and will, at the very least, bear comparison with the work of such greats.

As a sampler of the piano compositions of the young Brahms, and as a thoroughly musical recital, this CD can be very warmly recommended.

Glyn Pursglove



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