Vassily Primakov in Concert - Volume 2
Lieder ohne Worte, Op.30 (Songs without Words, Book 2) (1833-1834) [17:51]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No.2 in C minor (“French”), BWV 813 (1722-1725) [14:34]
Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Suite from “The Hours” (The Poet Acts; Morning Passages; Tearing Herself Away; The Hours) (2002) [17:48]
(compiled by V.Primakov after the piano transcriptions by Michael Riesman and Nico Muhly)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Suite Bergamasque (Prélude; Menuet; Clair de lune; Passepied ) (1890-1905) [17:19]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
rec. 2005 (Mendelssohn); 2006, New York (Bach); 2008 (Glass, Debussy)
BRIDGE 9350 [67:41]

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 programs.
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.
Oleg Ledeniov

The pianist is emotionally attached to the music and shows it from a new interesting perspective.