Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Three Intermezzos, Op.117 (1891-93) [17:41]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1835-36) [10:00]
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38 (1836-39) [7:30]
Ballade No.3 in A-flat major, Op.47 (1840-41) [8:07]
Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 (1842-43) [11:56]
Aleksandr SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata No.4 in F-sharp major, Op.30 (1899-1903) [8:10]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
rec. June 2009, Odense Koncerthus, Odense, Denmark.
HD DVD. Region-free. 4:3 Color, PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 Surround, Dolby 5.1 Surround, MP4.
Director: David Starobin
BRIDGE DVD 9315 [68:00]

Vassily Primakov was justly praised for his Chopin recordings. So it is not surprising that the main course of this his first DVD recording is the four Ballades. We also get a tasty appetizer and a sweet dessert, all adding up to a great concert experience. There are no extra-musical images on this DVD: just the pianist, sitting at the instrument in an empty concert hall. So, why a DVD? Does this visual component really add something? Well, yes. What you get here is a private recital for you alone, where you are sitting close to the pianist, with a good view of his hands and face, and can watch how the music is born. Which in this case is not a mere technical matter: Primakov is not just depressing the keys. He seems to re-think and re-create the music, he channels it through himself, and it is as if you can watch the process, from mind to fingers. His facial expression is very alive, and the setting of the film does nothing to distract from it. In the Brahms and Scriabin, the background is a black void. In the Chopin, the scene is brightly lit, and we see empty chairs and music-stands; maybe the idea was that each Ballade is a small concert sans orchestre? All this visual setting conveys the feeling of simplicity, concentration and sincerity without pretence. Primakov sings the music in his head, sometimes whispering inaudibly. He makes “big eyes” on sudden mood shifts, takes pleasure in the sweeter places and suffers in the stormy ones. The visual interest is also sustained by frequent changes of viewpoint.

You might say: “That’s nice, but what about the main aspect of the performance? What do I hear? Would it be good if it were just a CD?” Yes, definitely. These performances are technically impeccable, but, first and foremost, they are poetic. This is becoming a rare thing these days, when saying more often means shouting. Primakov says more in a quiet voice, and in the process shows us the soul of the music. But when he is storming, he storms in 3D.

Restraint is the motto of Primakov’s interpretation of the first Intermezzo from Op.117. The outer parts are spiritual and pastoral. But the middle part is slower than usual, which leads to a complete change of character. The music becomes dark and uneasy. This is, by the way, the hallmark of the entire disc: even in peaceful moments Primakov remembers the storms that will come, and this foreboding lurks in the deep undercurrents. Like artists that add cold tones to enliven a picture that mostly consists of warm colors, this shadow adds depth.

So, the first Intermezzo becomes very different, and I am not sure that I totally agree with Primakov’s view. I miss that feeling of graceful free movement. On the other hand, we’ll have plenty of this in the second piece, so as a result of this change the three Intermezzos become more varied, which makes the cycle more interesting. The second Intermezzo is all autumn leaves waltzing in the wind, and Primakov’s “magic touch” is on full display here. Again, there is more solemn loading on the second subject than usual. This adds some heaviness to the music, but it’s not excessive. The third Intermezzo starts sharper than usual, with less legato. This leads to a more ballad-like presentation, and reduces the moodiness. Brahms called this piece “the lullaby of all my griefs”, and Primakov shows the seriousness of these sorrows. The middle part gleams with pearly opalescence. Overall, this is a very personal reading.

The four Chopin’s Ballades are known as some of the most challenging pieces in the standard piano repertoire. Primakov makes the listener forget this it, such is the musicality he brings to bear. The G Minor breathes very naturally, with tempos well chosen. This ballad has everything in it, and the performance is accordingly diverse. Yet it does not fall apart into a sequence of fragments; the feeling of the overarching structure is maintained. The forte does not yell and the dense structures are well articulated, without “dirt”. The reading is dark and emotional.

In the F Major, Primakov seems to chant incantations to the piano. The pastoral first theme is not all placid: the pianist knows about the future. Thus, the explosion does not take us by complete surprise, but is no less shattering because of this. It is heavily pedaled and swirls like a thick tornado of black notes.

The A-flat Major starts calmly and gradually develops increasing agitation. Primakov squeezes more drama out of this music than there probably is – but it is persuasive. Even the tranquil moments have a relentless drive, and the climax is purely ecstatic.

In the last Ballad, Primakov presents the main theme as one of Chopin’s mazurkas: light, airy, melancholic. He is not in a hurry, yet all the drama is there, and the turbulent outbursts are furious. The coda is majestic in its dark abandon. The quiet passages are very delicate and poetic. Primakov’s Chopin is indeed very special.

The last work on this DVD is Scriabin’s rapturous Sonata No.4. Its two short parts form a tight unity: a preparation for flight followed by the flight itself. Primakov maintains the unceasing drive, like an avalanche rolling faster and faster, to the jubilant blaze, the golden frenzy, and the explosion of light.

The sound of the Steinway is full and deep. The annotation is by Malcolm MacDonald and is, as usual with him, exemplary. It perfectly combines thorough musical analysis with engaging reading. I would probably prefer to have a CD version of this recital: just to be able to listen to it more often. Frankly, how many times will you watch a 70-minute piano recital? Still, there really is an added dimension. Musically, this album is on the level of other Primakov’s recordings, which means it is a total winner. This is the most Romantic presentation of the most Romantic music. Very, very impressive.

Oleg Ledeniov

This is the most Romantic presentation of the most Romantic music.