Notes and Editorial Reviews
Do you prefer your Chopin streamlined? Sharp in profile? Fervently heroic? Do you believe that pianists should be as neutral as possible, keeping their temperaments in check so that they don’t interfere with the composer’s voice? If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you may not appreciate these new recordings. As most
readers probably know already, Vassily Primakov is a youngish pianist with a strong interpretive personality—and in these thoughtful, generally low-key performances, he impresses it on every page.
When I call them “low-key,” I don’t mean to suggest that Primakov lacks bravura, or that he draws back
from the climaxes. His technique, as we’ve come to expect, is sterling throughout (listen to the clarity of his left hand in his impetuous reading of the finale to the First Sonata), and he can blister you with the
before the quiet end of the Second Ballade, just as he can ring out the ending of the Fourth with plenty of force. Nor do I mean to suggest that this is “easy listening” Chopin. Quite the contrary: Starting with the imaginative rubato and dynamic shading in the opening of the First Sonata, these interpretively adventurous performances are, measure by measure, consistently kaleidoscopic and full of surprises that will throw you off balance. His refusal to normalize the gestures in the First Scherzo—his refusal to tame its lurches—is especially effective.
Full of surprises, yes—but if you’re looking for the kind of visceral shock the young Richter provided in his attack on the
Presto con fuoco
in the Second Ballade, you won’t find that here. Primakov’s surprises tend to be subtler; and as is obvious from the way he cushions the big chords that punctuate the opening of the Second Scherzo, the overall spirit here tends to be reflective rather than vehement. He generally finds the emotional weight of the music concentrated in the more contemplative passages—for instance, in the oasis at the center of the Second Sonata’s second movement (played with unparalleled stillness), rather than the scherzos that surround it. He’s more likely to disorient you with an exaggerated pianissimo than to startle you with a sudden accent. Similarly, he’s more liable to slow down to make a point than to rush ahead, even though his tempos tend to settle on the slow side of normal to begin with (try the Trio in the Second Sonata’s funeral march). Throughout, the music’s premonitions of Impressionism are heightened.
It’s no surprise, then, that what lingers most in your memory is not the music’s outward drama but its inner glow, heightened by Primakov’s ability to float a melody (and to savor its peaks), his fabulously downy decoration (listen to the
on the second theme of the Third Scherzo), his ability to draw out the music’s harmonic nuances, and—most striking of all—his daring flexibility of tempo. In spots, in fact—try the quieter moments of the Second Scherzo—he almost seems to be thinking up the music on the spot. Those who like their Chopin played more strictly, more objectively, may demur—but even they would have to admit that Primakov offers such rhythmic resilience that, even at its most extreme, the tempo-bending never threatens the sense of line or the music’s overall architecture. From its almost secretive opening, the Fourth Ballade is especially pensive and especially prismatic in its handling of quieter dynamics.
In sum, a departure from today’s mainstream—but a distinguished one, consistently exploratory, without a moment of inattention. Let me stress that “exploratory”: Primakov recorded the Chopin Ballades for a Bridge DVD just a few years back (see
34:1), but it’s obvious here that he continues to rethink his interpretations. I do wish that he were more generous with repeats and I wish you didn’t have to trek to the Internet to get the notes for the set. But the engineering is excellent, as on the other LP Classics discs I’ve heard. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
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