Just back from 42 concerts at the Lucerne Festival in Summer, this DVD piano recital couldn’t have come at a better time. Live performances seem to be coming less-and-less appealing with the never-ending, non-musical intrusions into the music. While unwanted summons from cellphones and pagers seem to be on the wane, public halls are still filled with program rustlers, jewellery fondlers, idle chatter, unstoppable coughs (always at the most tender moments of course) and premature applause (Aha! See, I knew it was over!!). Sad to report that none of the Swiss events went uninterrupted by one or more of this list. What’s a music lover to do?
Thanks to Vassily Primakov’s total focus on his art, he agreed to play selected works from Brahms, Chopin and Scriabin in a nearly-empty Odense Concert Hall (his only audience being Rico Feldfoss’ cameras and assorted production personnel).
The result is a welcome, “noise-free” look into the compositions at hand and Primakov’s marvellous way of bringing them to life.
Nonetheless, how can a one-artist presentation sustain visual interest for nearly seventy minutes? Director David Starobin’s considerable musical instincts (along with Rob Robles’ deft editing skills) frequently manage to be at one with Feldfoss’ images and the repertoire.
Wisely, two settings are employed. For the opening and closing works, piano and pianist are brightly lit, leaving the stage in magical darkness. For the Ballades, the stage lights are switched on, revealing the empty stands and chairs of the Odense Symphony Orchestra (with whom Primakov has recorded both Chopin concertos—cross-reference below—and is in the midst of a complete Mozart concerto-set with the same orchestra). This backdrop adds a feeling of spontaneity to the result—as if the orchestra was on break, allowing the pianist to set down a few tracks before the next rehearsal (which could well have been the case).
Beyond the requisite close-ups of dextrous hands, expressively-intense visage and gleaming keys, the screen is treated to some well-timed juxtapositions (having fingers dissolve into the mind that controls them is especially compelling), literally reflective (performer and his mirror image in the raised piano lid) and nearly-full, upper torso from the camera (placed at the far end of the Steinway) add welcome, discreet variety.
What doesn’t work anywhere near as well are the long shots from the empty seats (breaking the intimate spell) and most especially several of the pull backs that begin too quickly, jarring the listener/viewer’s concentration because they are so at odds with the musical flow. Undoubtedly still a work in progress, future productions will surely find a more consistent balance between what is heard and seen.
As to the performances, sans doute Chopin is the highlight. Op. 23 was a splendid mix of drama, finesse and power as required; the F Major Ballade began with an engaging, childlike lilt and joy of discovery only to be ideally foiled with resigned angst from the B material; No. 3 was a largely-gentle tonic to the emotional weight of its predecessor; Op. 42 concluded the set with a pervading tone of delicate mesto and featured beautifully-rendered repeated, melodic notes whose colours could simultaneously be appreciated visually and aurally before anvil-bass strokes led decisively to one of the most powerful finishes yet heard.
The first Brahms Intermezzo was the sole disappointment of this disc. Curiously, the second eighth of the principal line was not afforded the same weight as those on either side, robbing it of its full value both musically and emotionally. The remaining pair were models of understatement and control with their inner voices (especially those whose harmonic pull is essential to the quietly-sublime writing) providing insights at every turn.
More novelty than art was Scriabin’s brief, two-movment Sonata (seemingly an introduction and Perpetuum Mobile). With echoes of Richard Strauss feeding the motivic content and a precursor of Gershwin’s piano writing just a few years away, the piece is an interesting testament to the ability of so many composers to make something old—unconsciously or not—new again. JWR