Few relationships are more personal—and, regrettably in this era of “All the world’s a concert hall” fuelled by wide-body jets, fleeting—than soloist and conductor.
Over the economically brief span of rehearsal, performance and recording (the later often one and the same) two musical protagonists must hope, convince and cajole their separate ways to a meeting of minds in service of the usually heard-but-no-longer-seen composer.
With the Chopin concertos (presented in chronological order and, happily, in their original skins—the “improvements” more deservedly gathering dust on a back shelf of the music museum of second guessers than usurping the sometimes demeaned—“[nothing] but a cold and useless accompaniment,” according to Hector Berlioz—orchestrator extraordinaire) Vassily Primakov serves notice that his musical ideas, integrity and imagination are more than up to the task of crafting first-rate interpretations.
For his part, conductor Paul Mann tries valiantly to keep the tempi and ensemble at one with the young Russian but frequently lags just a hair short of greatness and permits his talented charges to err on the pudgy side of accompaniment (notably Op. 21’s opening Maestoso). More lean less languid, please. Let the hall and recording engineers add the required breadth.
From Primakov’s first entry, he takes stage with assurity and provides bar after bar of warmly lyrical ebb and flow. The second subject is a model of discretion; the extreme top rings beautifully with only an occasional moment of brittleness in the upper reaches marring the result. The pianist’s feel for the unwritten (and too seldom understood and realized) harmonic underpinnings and shifts demonstrates decisively that he is a musician that happens to play the piano rather than the far too common converse.
The following “Larghetto” begins thoughtfully; from Primakov’s opening statement the ensemble improves. The mid-section drama works well and the long, gentle farewell—the bassoon’s echoing phrase is just right—will soothe any troubled soul.
The “Allegro vivace” needs more lift from the band (“Let the dance begin!”) to match Primakov’s invigoratingly playful technique, effused with “Yes I can” bravura. His buoyant, pianistic pizzazz is a constant pleasure. The Weber-like triplets (remarkably similar to the final measures of the Grand Quinetto for clarinet and string quartet)—somewhat too frantic, at times—drive the music to a convincing finish.
In the First Concerto, the scope is much broader yet Chopin isn’t as concise and economical with his overall construction and development. More left-hand pressure and full bows would add much to the string tone in the exposition. Primakov provides beautifully balanced, controlled lines and wonderfully subtle entries—notably midway where Mann needs to anticipate rather than react. The childlike innocence in the “Romanze” is especially welcome. The pianist’s velvet left hand the perfect foil for his melodic right. One more rehearsal would likely have ensured that the climax was exactly together—perhaps I demand too much, yet everything was so close …
The mood of fun and joy in the delightfully coy finale was established immediately by Primakov; the players couldn’t help but respond in kind. The second subject’s charming impishness was delightful. Only the lack of weight required for the repeated-note theme diminished the effect of an otherwise exhilarating performance. JWR