When given with the opportunity of recording a disc of Beethoven sonatas, perhaps the toughest question faced by the pianist is which ones to select. With thirty-two to choose from it’s no easy task. Many opt for the best-loved (Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight,” Op. 13, “Pathétique” ). Not surprisingly, given his marvellous understanding beyond just the notes as they appear on the page (cross-reference below), Vassily Primakov found three works that moved logically, harmonically (F leading a semi-tone down to E leading a further semi-tone down to D-sharp/E-flat) and emotionally. The result is a seemingly through-composed set that successfully pulls the disparate parts into a convincing whole.
The “Appassionata’s” opening movement is carefully and clearly laid out thanks to Primakov’s sturdy technique and ability to follow the music’s pulse rather than its mere beats. It surges and soars at will, always aware of the next milestone. As impressive as that is, the highlight of this work comes via the apparently simple first three chords of the “Andante con moto.” The weight (both tone and time) given the G-flat major chord, reveals a plagal cadence that surpasses the intended “dolce” in a way that only those who understand why the notes are here, now and in this register can purge the artificial bar lines and slip directly into art. Any differences we have about length of notes and “real” triplets (“Allegro ma non troppo”) are largely overlooked when the compositional subtext is so much in evidence.
The sunny disposition of Op. 14, No.1 is the perfect sherbet after the depths of F Minor. Better still, Primakov plays all of the repeats (here and elsewhere), allowing the development to actually be one. Whether newcomers or frequent listeners, sonata form is based on a double helping of the exposition before venturing into the marvels of morphing, combining and modulating the themes. Beethoven ensures that himself by craftily writing out the “repeat” of the “Allegretto’s” first subject—in this instance changing the register to add even further variety and laying the seeds for the coda to come. The closing “Rondo“ was beautifully understated and zipped along confidently even as the treacherous syncopation signalled the end of this musical affair.
Primakov’s performance of Op. 111 had much to admire. The sense of dramatic angst filled the exceptional opening (What key are we in?) with an inner tension that truly found resolution through his devotion to the underlying structure. The frequent push and pull of the tempi were executed with deceptively easy-sounding authority—all of the voices knew where they were headed. A major surprise was the somewhat rushed speed of the “Arietta.” As the variations unfolded, the pianist came close to making a case for his choice, but too many memories of the chills induced from more thoughtful (and dangerous—sustainability is exceedingly difficult, but still ...) approaches. Not surprisingly, those views came from the likes of Brendel and Kempff in their senior years. Fortunately, Primakov is just coming into his own so we can all look forward to the complete sonatas and a few revisits to these as the decades fly by in this already remarkable career. JWR