Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
14 Waltzes (suite compiled by V.Primakov) [9:50]
Impromptu in F minor, D.935; Op.142 No.1 [11:22]
13 Ländler (suite compiled by Vera Gornostaeva) [8:51]
Impromptu in C minor, D.899; Op.90 No.1 [8:51]
Impromptu in E-flat Major, D.899; Op.90 No.2 [10:01]
Impromptu in G-flat Major, D.899; Op.90 No.3 [4:51]
Impromptu in A-flat Major, D.899; Op.90 No.4 [6:11]
12 Waltzes (suite compiled by Vera Gornostaeva) [9:11]
Impromptu in A-flat Major, D.935; Op.142 No.2 [8:10]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
rec. October 2009, Odense Koncerthus, Odense, Denmark. DDD
BRIDGE 9327 [76:22]

A good healthy Schubert is dry and bouncy. Some performers tend to Chopinize his music, to make it more rrromantique – more so in the Impromptus than the sonatas. But Schubert is not a proto-Chopin. Give his music space to breathe. What may seem as repetitive is just alive. Are leaves on a tree repetitive? Are waves on the shore?

On his continuing journey through the composers - oh when will he get to Haydn at last! - Vassily Primakov makes a stop at the Schubert station and it’s far from perfunctory. Primakov is a master of transformation; with every disc he enters the skin and the spirit of the composer and does so very persuasively. With some other pianists I sometimes get the feeling that they record a certain piece just to increase their “coverage” of repertory, to put a checkmark in a table and add another box to a pile of faceless, unnecessary recordings. In my experience each album by Primakov (and I have’t heard them all) says something new about the music. Sometimes it can be quite an eye-opener.

On his Schubert disc, Primakov does what the pianists usually avoid. He emphasizes the composer’s duality by joining together the two poles of his art: the earthly and the heavenly - plain sixpence-a-bunch Waltzes cosy up to sublime Impromptus. Moreover, he doesn’t just play them side by side – he alternates them, mixes them in a pot. I can’t say I feel entirely comfortable about this; maybe I just need more listening to grow into it but the idea is interesting. The construction is almost symmetrical. The set of Impromptus D.899 is left unbroken in the center. On its flanks, two sets of Waltzes and one of Ländler - it’s not easy to tell the difference, honestly - frame two first Impromptus from D.935. As a result of such superposition, the poles start to move toward each other. The Waltzes/Ländler, being placed among such noble creatures, lose some of their plebeian oompah and show grace and poetic charm.

Primakov never forgets whose music he is playing: the colors are bright and saturated, without falling into the creamy, dreamy pastels of Chopin. These dances still show a close family resemblance to deutsche tänze, where everything is simple, and the triangle is almost square.

Primakov compiled one of the suites, the other two are by his teacher Vera Gornostaeva. All three are well assembled, with seamless connection of keys. The set by Primakov has more of a bright-march character and is perhaps closer to what the composer actually played at his dance parties – for he most probably stayed within the same mood for at least several minutes. Gornostaeva’s Waltz set has a greater diversity and a changing tempo, which makes it more music for the ears than for the feet. It also has a few somber places, and some neighbor-pieces seem strange companions. Like Brahms’ Liebeslieder waltzes, this is a collection rather than a sequence. The same can be said about the 13 Ländler. We have more minor keys here, and the tempo is slower. This brings a more free and graceful feeling – after all, it’s not all about one-two-three. Primakov’s playing is simple and crisp, perfect for this kind of music although, there are moments where he is too hard. It seems to me that even in those early days of the Waltz, the dancers didn’t actually jump, did they?

Now, with the Impromptus it’s more complicated. My favorite set is Radu Lupu on Decca (1983) and, consciously or subconsciously, I measure all the rest against it. In my opinion, Primakov surpasses it with the two pieces from D.935. In the first, the chordal passages have weight without brutality; the volatile phrases really take wing. The central fragment, where the melody in the left hand switches between the low and high registers, is very delicate and poignant. The tempo is alive and changes occur in a natural and telling way. All layers are perfectly balanced.

In the outer parts of No.2, Primakov’s sound is soft and warm – more reminiscent of a minuet than of the dance itself. The sonorities linger in the air, to be absorbed, as in the Musical Moments. Here too, the tempo is alive and the music breathes freely. Instead of a static picture, we get a stately, steady forward motion. Primakov grabs full attention in the Trio with its restless triplets. The expressivity is obtained more by the mutable tempo than by the dynamic pressure. The return of the opening segment provides quiet closure for the album.

Primakov’s interpretation of D.899 differs a lot from the Lupu. The latter presents No.1 as slow, mystic storytelling. When it becomes dramatic, it’s like the action in a long creepy story. Primakov is perceptibly faster; in his ballad there are battles and horse chases. The music is active, agitated and more spectacular. In the beginning, his marching chords are more insistent than alarming. But when the pace quickens and the grip tightens, he provides really dramatic scenery.

In No.2, Primakov is silky smooth in the triplet section. But after this Ariel music, the chordal section is a veritable Caliban. The steps are heavy and uneven, the music is unmannered – each beat seems to come a tad late. This is evidently the pianist’s decision. It increases the drama, but leaves an uncomfortable feeling.

Primakov turns No.3 into another of Liszt’s Liebesträume. The accompaniment is sharp and placed too forward; in the long run it bores. The minor-key episodes are too melodramatic. Lupu finds better solutions to both these problems. His version is more natural, with a softer accompaniment creating a mysterious nocturnal mist.

The opening section of No.4 is energetic and poetic at the same time. The falling arpeggios are light and wistful. This could be an ideal performance, if it were the only section in the piece. However, in the C#-minor middle section Primakov falls into the same pit as with No.3: the accompaniment is too sharp and forward-placed. In his attempt to dramatize the music he starts to bang at it like a jackhammer. When the opening section returns, it is, again, just wonderful.

So, on the evidence of this disc, I wouldn’t enroll Vassily Primakov into the roster of great Schubert interpreters. At least not yet. The disc is good. But not extraordinary. Schubert should be more … horizontal, if you know what I mean. The listener should want it to go on and on. Also, gentleness of touch is as important here as it is in Mozart. Primakov’s Mozart is outstanding. But here he does not sustain his “magic touch” throughout.

The recording quality is excellent. The sound is palpable. As usual, the insert-note has an interesting historical and musical analysis – this time by by Malcolm MacDonald. The people at Bridge will have to start proofing the texts: such fine notes do not deserve all these errors. As usual, the booklet is covered with Primakov’s portraits, facing in all possible directions. Are there still some angles left, I wonder? Maybe this reflects his “tasting sessions” of different composers – from Mozart to Rachmaninov and Scriabin. If so, I don’t object. I only wish for him to continue. What he has accomplished so far is very good.

Oleg Ledeniov

The disc is good but not extraordinary.