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]
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
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
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
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
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.