JWR Articles: CD - The Music of Vassily Primakov (Featured artist: Vassily Primakov) - May 16, 2020
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The Music of Vassily Primakov

4.5 4.5
305 min.

LP Classics 1004, 1009 A/B
Three discs that delight

Never having heard a bar of Nicolai Medtner, Primakov made me an instant convert to this neglected composer. At times gentle, bold then dreaming, the ear is filled with all manner of shades, textures and tones. The shared passion is abundant in every measure, even if the music has little new to say.

Seldom heard Bunte Blätter (Ten Pieces) from Robert Schumann is given a sterling reading by Primakov. I: somewhat hesitant and beautifully voiced; II: now impulsive: III: Go! Filled with contrast; IV: gentle, caring before a vrai pianissimo; V: wonderfully hesitato then assuredly confidant; VI: quietly soaring then chromatically balanced; VII: wonderfully dark; VIII: strength, fun and joy; Novelette: so much drama brings us all home before the March sends us all home to safety.

Let’s just say it: Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (Op. 24) are amongst the most original, satisfying variations of all time. Last seen and heard in these pages nearly 20 years ago (cross-reference below), Primakov brings a decidedly subtle and introspective tone to this magnificent art. His astute “interpretation” of the dynamics (never to be taken entirely literally) and ability to let the variations breathe and expand on their own gives this reading a cohesive, inner life that would have the master smiling, somewhere. When the glorious fugue does arrive, it most certainly sums up all that went before. It’s a performance for the ages.

And here’s a “La Valse” that stands head and shoulders above its orchestral competitors with Primakov plumbing the depths of the moody, at times thunderous architecture as he gradually melds the lines into his own skin. Never pushing the tempi but managing to move forward in style. Rhapsodic when required, this performance justly deserved the warm applause.

Ah youth! The late teenager, Chopin, puts on a masterclass of creativity for any “Artist as a Young Man” who knows he has something to say.

This two-disc set opens with Sonata No. 1, Op.4. The “Allegro Maestoso” is fuelled by youthful passion, declarative statements and a marvel of contrasts, delivered by both composer and pianist with deft subtlety. The exposition repeat would have been welcomed in this clearly heroic—C minor, of course—essay. “Menuetto-Allegretto” (showing Chopin’s instinctive/historical understanding of form). “Delicataso” rules, and of course, the repeats were followed; the Trio featured an almost undecidedly narrow path to follow. In the (for then) somewhat unusual 5/4 time signature (youth will threaten their elders) the “Larghetto” was declaimed in a thoughtful, emotional style, sprinkled with just the right amount of “hesitato”. Clearly a vrai “Song Without Words”, infused with many welcome harmonic shifts.

The “Finale” emoted “fire” indeed filled with punchy accents, while, once again of course, impetuous at times. What could come next?

It was presented in a thoughtfully emotive style with just the right amount of thrust and parry, becoming a vrai cognitive understanding of the emerging artist. Here is an art (both composer and performer) to be reckoned with.

In Scherzo No 1, the artist—who can’t seem to settle on which route to adopt,—nonetheless puts on a thematic coat and strides purposely forward—just relax and enjoy the ride.

Primakov delivers a musical/dramatic masterclass in his wide-ranging reading of the G Minor Ballade, Op, 23. It is flooded with, at times, loose and thoughtful detail, even as the drama roils to the surface.

It’s hard to imagine a more impassioned reading of Scherzo No, 2 in B-flat Minor. Primakov is at times full of the underlying drama, magnificent contrasts, harmonic shifts and never shy of being coquettish. Cheers to more!

For the infamous Op. #2 Sonata, only the first movement doesn’t gel (perhaps the repeat would have helped).

From there, the “Scherzo” sizzled with accents deftly rendered. The iconic “Marche funèbre” has just the right mix of pathos and inevitability. The “Presto,” vanishing as quickly as it should, leaves no doubt as to the proponent’s technical prowess.

The ideal balance of drama and lyrism continues in the Ballade No. 2 in F Major. The lavishly wrapped themes are wonderfully unwrapped before being presented and displayed as required.

The Scherzo No. 3 (Op. 39) is a marvel of unrepentant drama, homage to Brahms and deftly employs virtually the entire keyboard. Again, Primakov employs just the right amount of “hesitato” when required. Only a bit more weight on the numerous accents could have improved the result.

Primakov finds the thoughtful, delicate and powerful movements of the wide-ranging Ballade Op. 3, No 47 in every bar. He always knows here he (and Chopin) are going, as witness just the right amount of “lingering/pushing”—unwritten in the score, but obvious to superior practitioners.

In sum, this is nothing short of stunning: both the music and the performance. Primakov reveals himself alongside Chopin: revelling in the beautiful emotions; seismic harmonic shifts and interwoven textures. Here is the aural antidote to COVID-19.

With Scherzo No. 4 (Op. 54) Primakov delivers the incredible study of contrasts with wide-ranging emotions and heady punctuation. Unbounded joy is readily balanced by drama (harmonic, textural and rhythmic). Composer and performer are most assuredly at one with each other.

In so many ways saving the best for last (like the composer himself), Primakov raises his own considerable bar with a bravura performance of Sonata No. 3. Op. 58. “Allegro Maestoso” is ideally heroic and superbly balanced with the beautiful contrast of the second subject. The “Scherzo” redefines “leggiero” along with “moody” touches. Both of those movements, in retrospect, readily set the stage of the core of the work: “Largo.” Here, the pianist delivers an emotional tour de force that never loses sight of its goal: unabashedly sharing the human experience. Repeated hearings are recommended. The “Finale” is just the perfect tonic to all that preceded. Anyone—ever—who may have doubted Chopin’s prowess with long-form works will be left with nothing to say. JWR

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Featured artist - Vassily Primakov
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