Oleg Marshev (***) and Tra Nguyen (****), Wigmore Hall, London


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The Independent Culture

Prokofiev’s ‘Visions fugitives’ are popular these days, so the Melodya label’s newly-released archive recording of the composer playing these piano miniatures comes à propos, and it also shows how wide of the mark most contemporary performances are.

Prokofiev’s way had a dry transparency where every detail was cherished, and lightness and charm were the key. Oleg Marshev graduated via the celebrated Gnessin school in Moscow, so it was no surprise that his account should have an authentic ring: he found the right blend of playfulness, plaintiveness, and make-believe ferocity.

His all-Russian programme continued with Skryabin’s ‘Vers la flamme, poème op 72’, to which he brought a very Russian expressiveness, but it concluded with a performance of Musorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ which undersold that heroically impressionistic exercise.

Separated by a ‘promenade’ in which the aural palette is repeatedly wiped clean, these ‘paintings’ turn on contrasts in colour, rhythm, tempo, and mood, and the player absolutely must do what it says on the packet. Marshev was fine with Baba Yaga’s rampage, and with the lumbering ‘Bydlo’, but he failed to find the drama in the Great Gate of Kiev, and the delicate little ‘ballet of the un-hatched chicks’ sounded more like Yorkshire clog-dancing.

Tra Nguyen, the Vietnamese pianist who took over the hall a few hours later, was also a graduate of the Gnessin school and she too played Skryabin, though hers was of a different order. His densely-worked Piano Sonata No 6 doesn’t yield up its secrets easily, but Nguyen found her way through its labyrinthine tonality with such accomplished ease that the work acquired tidal force.

She had begun her recital with Clementi’s Sonata in F sharp minor Op 25 No 5, applying pellucid articulation and a quintessentially classical restraint. This music is as adventurous as Haydn, and as expressive as Mozart, but it’s shamefully seldom programmed: it could have no better advocate than this charismatic pianist.

And Nguyen takes risks. After casting a lovely spell with the wistful Andante of Schubert’s ‘Little’ Sonata in A major, she launched into its Allegro’s cascading scales and arpeggios at a crazy pace, and she lived even more dangerously in the whirling finale of Chopin’s Sonata No 3. If the Schubert was slightly smudged, the Chopin was dazzling, and with a glowing Schubert encore set the seal on an exhilarating evening.