This is the second disc of live concert recordings of Vassily
Primakov issued by the Bridge label. The first one, reviewed
here, contained music by Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and
Rachmaninov. In the second one the pianist takes a break from
the great romantics whose music usually forms the base for his
The compilation opens with the second set of Mendelssohn’s Songs
Without Words, a collection of Romantic bagatelles, melodically
rich and holding well together. The first piece resembles a
Chopin nocturne: it is unhurried yet with tension, and encloses
a glorious melody. The second is Erlkönig-like: nervous;
fast running, with a suddenly affirmative, major-key ending.
No.3 is confident and solemn; it moves in a calm, measured pace.
No.4 is marked Agitato e con fuoco. The anxious, disheveled
melody lashes over the nervous, drumming staccato –
like in the Intermezzo from the Midsummer
incidental music. No.5 plays the role of a “Mendelssohn scherzo”
in this set: it is happily rolling, simple and open, like a
busy, bubbling brook. The last piece, a Barcarolle,
is tender and cool, with a graciously swaying beautiful melody.
Primakov applies poetic touch and shapes the melodies persuasively.
But his performance is a bit heavy, especially in the left hand.
I am not a specialist and can’t point at the factor, such as
the instrument, the pedaling, the acoustics or the recording
decisions, but more lightness and transparency can be obtained
here. The recorded sound is not the clearest possible. Primakov’s
reading of No.1 is dark and weighty. In No.2, I feel that he
is losing the classical clarity and crispiness, one of Mendelssohn’s
attributes – but instead adds passion and Romantic push. He
does not let the music drag in No.3, and expresses well its
choral-like solemnity. But in No.4, the sound is too resonant
for the frequent staccato chords, and the result gets
murky. A more dry sound would be better here: the melody drowns
under the heavy accompaniment. No.5 is turned from a light,
elfin scherzo into a Rachmaninov-like song with accompaniment,
which makes some sense considering the title of the set. In
the last piece, the pianist “helps” the music a little to express
its emotions, though it arguably could do it perfectly well
on its own. Primakov’s Chopin and Schumann are excellent, and
I feel that he puts his Mendelssohn very close to them. So,
to enjoy it one should throw away all preconceptions and expectations,
and just relax: then it will work really well.
Bach’s French Suite No.2 could look very alien in the
company of Mendelssohn, Debussy and Glass, but in Primakov’s
interpretation it fits the mosaic naturally. This Bach is modern,
a tad romanticized but with care, and never overdone. It reminded
me of the wonderful album Brendel Plays Bach on Philips.
Compared to more “white” interpretations – like those by Angela
Hewitt, for example – Primakov’s reading is more emotional and
subjective. For example, whereas the Allemande by Hewitt
clearly shows its roots as a dance, the dancers to Primakov’s
Allemande would probably stop and listen. I feel that
he is emotionally attached to this music – the thing that we
often got with the pianists of old, but less and less in the
new “organic” generations. This Allemande is gentle,
airy and cool.
Courante means “running” and Primakov in his interpretation
goes fast – or flies fast, for there is a definite airborne
feeling. Performance on a modern piano inevitably brings some
minor stomping, since the bass is heavier. His phrasing is beautiful
– and the same applies to the ensuing Sarabande, whose
serene beauty is brought out finely. The middle episode, where
the left hand goes marcato, is even a little creepy.
Aria is sharp and concentrated; all the voices are
well projected. The texture of Menuet is rather sparse,
and it seems to me that the sound is hard in the right hand.
The second minuet (BWV813a) is omitted. It must be not easy
to bring out the highly syncopated Gigue, yet Primakov
gives it enough impetus and weight, and even certain rudeness,
disclosing its origin in folk dances. Facelessness is the plague
of the modern interpretations of Bach – not in this case!
You can’t make a decent movie without good music to set the
mood. I understand why the directors continue to order film
scores from the minimalist composer Philip Glass, for he knows
how to set the mood big time - even though his range of moods
is minimalistic too. From the award-winning soundtrack to the
psychological drama The Hours (featuring three unforgettable
primas) Primakov compiled a suite of four pieces. He used the
piano transcriptions by Riesman and Muhly and added some alterations.
The parts are connected seamlessly. In the first one, The
Poet Acts, obsessive rhythmical figures create the mood
of dark, restless waiting. In ballad-like Morning Passes,
one can only find something new if one never heard the music
of Philip Glass before. But if you are not allergic to his style
you might actually enjoy it. It starts with more light and lightness
than the first piece, but also with sadness, and dramatic gushes
of wind; the wind becomes stronger by the second half and brings
hard rain. Tearing Herself Away starts tranquil and
gloomy, subdued, hypnotic. Halfway through, the tension starts
to gather, the texture doubles in density and then doubles again,
the arpeggios quicken, and we enter a tumultuous episode – and
all calms down again. The last part, The Hours, finally
adds some major-key serenity, and some majestic pathos in the
middle. The ending is sad and quiet.
Primakov gives us quite a Romantic reading that will appeal
to a wider audience than just the devoted Glass-eaters. This
music could be played in a more detached and cool, more “purely
minimalistic” manner. As usual with Glass, it sounds like an
accompaniment to an imaginary melody. One might argue that this
is music “too easy to compose”; still, it is music, and nobody
else does it exactly like this, and Philip Glass does it well.
I am ambivalent here: on the first hearing, Glass always fascinates
me; on the fifth, I wish I’ll never hear it again. The music
certainly receives a devoted presentation here.
Primakov’s Suite Bergamasque is bright and sonorous,
with saturated colors. The recording is rather close and resonant,
and the piano has beautiful sound. Primakov starts the Prélude
in a grand manner, with unhurried poise. He infuses it with
a mystic, fairy-tale quality, but that of Charles Perrault,
not of Maeterlinck. This is a very singing interpretation, even
a little Puccinian. The Menuet also very songful, and
instead of its usual cautiousness and antiqueness I hear some
smiling mischievousness and Rachmaninov’s big gestures. Clair
de lune is sensual and has much beauty, though little mystery;
it sounds almost like Chopin. Nice little lamps are scattered
around the garden, to help the moonlight. Their light is brighter,
and the darkness seems deeper by contrast. There is the same
depth and contrast in Passepied. The melodies breathe;
there is a feeling of looking back in time, maybe with some
regret. This is a very absorbing performance, with excellent
drive, and a cool ending. Primakov’s playing has weight but
is not heavy; he paints with thick lines and bold strokes. The
high accentuated notes occasionally sound hard and ringing,
but not to a disturbing level.
As usual, Vassily Primakov has given us a disc of great music
performed with sense and sensibility. Some may not like the
sound of his Mendelssohn, others may not consider Glass worthy
of inclusion, or may think that Bach sounds too Romantic. But
overall, I am sure everyone will find something to his taste
here. As usual, Primakov showed me the music from a new interesting
perspective, and I thank him for that.