For many if not most listeners, the piano music the young Brahms' wrote before leaving Hamburg is terra incognita. How many listeners know the three Sonatas or the four Ballades or the several sets of Variations composed before the break-through Paganini or Handel Variations? Too few: the music's powerful expressivity, muscular virtuosity, rhythmic vivacity and intimate sensibility still waits to be discovered for many listeners already long familiar with Brahms' later piano works. Will this 2005 disc by Oleg Marshev entitled "The Early Brahms" featuring the Sonata Opus 1, the Schumann Variations Opus 9 and the Ballades Opus 10 help the cause? Up to a point: Marshev is a fine player but not always a persuasive player. When the music calls for emotional inwardness in the Sonata's Andante or the Variations' Adagio or the Ballades' Intermezzo, Marshev seems not quite able to penetrate the music. When the music calls for virtuoso extravagance in the Sonata's opening Allegro or the Variations' Allegro capriccioso or the Ballades' opening Andante, Marshev seems not altogether able to master the notes. And when the music calls for ecstasy in the Sonata's closing Allegro con fuoco or agony in the Variations' opening Ziemlich langsam or mystery in the Ballades' closing Andante con moto, Marshev seems not entirely able to articulate the emotional nuances. Listeners who love Brahms and don't already know his early piano music may find these works a revelation, but they may also want to hear Sviatoslav Richter's astoundingly virtuostic Opus 1 Sonata or Wilhelm Kempff's astonishingly evocative Opus 10 Ballades as well.
Danacord's sound is perhaps a bit too dry and possibly a tad too distant.