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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata No.1 in C minor, Op.4 (1828) [23:18]
Scherzo No.1 in B minor, Op.20 (1831-32) [10:20]
Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1831) [9:55]
Scherzo No.2 in B-flat minor, Op.31 (1837) [10:34]
Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor, Op.35 (1837-1839) [23:41]
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38 (1836-39) [7:38]
Scherzo No3 in C-sharp minor, Op.39 (1839) [7:53]
Ballade No.3 in A-flat minor, Op.47 (1841) [7:56]
Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 (1842, rev.1843) [12:06]
Scherzo No.4 in E major, Op.54 (1842) [12:51]
Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58 (1844) [28:37]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
rec. 2012, The Concert Hall of University of Southern Florida (Tampa). DDD
LP CLASSICS 1009A/B [77:50 + 76:59]

Vassily Primakov has a special relationship with the music of Chopin. Here is a pianist with the necessary ingredients in his armoury: emotional control, velvety touch, understanding of the composer’s intentions, interpretational honesty and modesty. This has already brought high praise for his recordings of Chopin’s concertos and mazurkas.

The present recording, now on Primakov’s own LP Recordings label, continues to support his reputation. This double disc contains a rare combination – all three sonatas, the four Ballades and the four Scherzos. Although the Scherzos and the Ballades are sometimes recorded as a set, this is not the case with the sonatas. The First Sonata is probably the least known of Chopin’s large-scale works, which is completely undeserved. This set is also a gift for those who prefer candy-free Chopin, without the ubiquitous caramelised bijoux. Those are precious, but one can’t eat candy all the time. Here we meet Chopin The Serious, the peer of Liszt and Schumann.

The piano is a Steinway D. Despite the reservations that some may have about Steinways, this one is a magnificent example of how you can have it all. The sound is clear and lean yet with a great expressive range. The instrument is capable of subtlety and power, which is essential for such a large pianistic anthology. So often with a Steinway I feel that I am listening to the instrument rather than to the music – not here. This also suits Primakov’s manner, as he aims to convey the essence of the music and not to show-off and strike poses.

The works are not grouped by the name, but are ordered by their opus number. This is an interesting odyssey, spanning the composer’s entire life and showing how the idealistic youth becomes more mature, skilful and bitter over the years.

Chopin’s First Sonata is the closest to the sound-world of his two concertos. It starts with a heavily emotional first movement, which is followed by a rustic, syncopated Scherzo in Ländler style. Then comes a tender, opalescent slow movement, and lastly the tempestuous finale. Primakov makes a cut in this movement, to make it more condensed. The playing is expressive yet gentle, wistful yet wise, unhurried yet energetic.

Primakov starts the Second Sonata notably faster than the classical examples. In this way the resemblance to Beethoven’s Tempest sonata is less prominent, and so the greater is the contrast with the hypnotic calmness of the second subject. The “love music” in the middle of Scherzo is warm and tender, without exaggeration or pressure. Primakov’s version of the Marche funèbre has more direct momentum than, for example, Rubinstein’s hypnotic dirge. It brings the cold metallic feeling of inevitability, is less personal and more “objective”. On the other hand, it is also less deep and, as a consequence, I find it not as gripping. The middle episode is woven out of gentle silver light, with the ethereal coolness of a glass harmonica. What always ruined this sonata for me was the strangely incongruous, tiny and crumpled finale. After the nine-minute Marche funèbre it takes a little over a minute; it flies without foundation, and sounds more like an etude. Primakov makes it work by not rushing; he intones and accentuates every measure, every little branch of this thicket, making it alive and breathing. Byron Janis does a similar thing but is more intense, to even greater effect. Rubinstein is deadly uniform and perfunctory; I suspect he hated this part of the sonata.

The first movement of the Third Sonata is impatient and heroic. Primakov interprets it in a way similar to that adopted by Nelson Freire, who is opulent and beautifully poetic. With that, Primakov has more of a dramatic aim, while Freire leaves us with the feeling of “Wow, that’s beautiful”. Primakov does not wear his heart on his sleeve; many things are said simply and even casually, without melodrama. It’s this sincerity that makes the feeling believable. The Scherzo is taken at a more leisurely tempo than usual. It is still mercurial but a greater breathing space grants it elegance and a clear, fountain-like glitter. The lack of sheer speed-induced brilliance reduces the Wow-factor; on the other hand, this understatement is delicate and kindles the listener’s imagination. The slow movement resembles the quiet slow movements of Beethoven with some solemn, Lisztian harmonies du soir. Primakov produces a real Largo — not the Andante adopted by some — but with sufficient inner motion and vitality. He plays it lightly, with subtle shades, and even on this scale the music does not become monotonous. This experience can be compared with watching a pastoral landscape under slowly drifting clouds. I like how the message of this movement grows on almost hypnotically. The pianist is commanding and versatile in the stormy sea of the finale, keeping our interest through dynamics, accents and excellent drive. His pace is soft. He does not stomp the main theme but sings it. This is a tad slower than the average competitor, but has Beethovenian power without too much rapture.

Primakov takes the First Ballade slower than usual, especially in transitions, and loses a bit of its drama on the way. This work is very cinematographic, but the movie we are shown here has more suspense than action. There's a certain evenness of the dynamic level in the second part. Overall, it is not excessively theatrical, and is closer to a candid narration along the lines of Ashkenazy than to the more eccentric takes of Michelangeli or Janis.
Ballade No.2 opens calm and tender. Then enter the demons, black and scary, and very visual. The tempo is not breakneck allowing more inner voices to be heard. This more narrative tempo also suits the essence of the genre – after all, this is a ballade, not a scherzo. The reading is dramatic and lyrical.

In the barcarollish Third Ballade Rubinstein is grand, Moiseiwitsch playful, and Ashkenazy alive, smooth and volatile, like an ephemeral dancer by Degas. Compared with Ashkenazy, Primakov’s version shows the joints and the hinges. There is too much bravura and granularity; the music feels more jerky than graceful.

Ballade No.4 is Chopin’s Valse triste. Rubinstein here is grand and melodramatic, Moiseiwitsch simple and balanced, Ashkenazy is epic and totally absorbs the listener in the twists of the plot. Primakov starts the pendulum moving slowly and gathers pace gradually. He articulates very clearly. In the middle he is more dancing than flying; there is less forward momentum and more attention to the beauty of the moment. In the “big storm” he exhibits restraint, but the ending is a real tempest. There are places where he drags a bit but the steady gathering of energy is certainly impressive.

The tumult of the outer parts of the First Scherzo is aptly hysterical. There are some accentuating tempo changes, but they work well and do not feel mannered. The Trio sings spellbindingly. In the Second Scherzo, Primakov strikes the golden medium between heroic Richter and poetic Michelangeli, with a good ear for nuance. The climax is powerful, yet without banging, and the ending is ecstatic.

Primakov’s Scherzo No.3 leaves an ambiguous impression. On one hand it is hard, raw and not pretty, and the beginning is rushed. On the other hand, its dramatic structure is very clear. It is engaging and dramatically convincing. The pianist fully employs the powerful and dark lower register of his instrument. The first theme is blatantly cruel and so the greater is the effect of the magical, soothing second subject.

Primakov presents the last Scherzo as a mini-sonata, with the sad Trio becoming the real slow movement, a bit operatic and very distinct from other parts. Most recordings gravitate towards 10 minutes; Primakov indulges in almost 13 minutes. The music of the outer parts does not sound much slower, though: the time is spent in breaks, pauses and preparations. Everything becomes grand, with less in the way of “French” lightness and spontaneity. The accents are strong and the music gains weight, which does not always work. Richter on Melodiya also favours a slower approach, but in his case – possibly because of his preference for a brighter instrument – the result is light and airborne. I can’t deny though that Primakov’s Trio is beautifully sung.

Overall, this double disc is more than the sum of its parts. Even though some other performers may have handled certain moments better, everything here still fits very well into the large mosaic. Ordering the pieces chronologically is fruitful – not from the purely historical point of view, but because it separates similar pieces. Chopin did not intend his Scherzos or Ballades to be played in a group. They can be better appreciated when approached separately, especially the Scherzos. In this way a necessary diversity is secured, and it becomes easier to consume and appreciate such a large helping of music.

The pianist gives us good thunder in the early works and good sunshine in the later ones. He has the tendency to hover over certain places for emphasis. He puts to good use the resonant depth of his instrument’s lower register. This is not “old man’s Chopin”, perfectly measured, balanced and predictable. This is Chopin of flesh and blood, not a spectral presence. The performance excites like a live concert experience. The booklet is minimal, but more notes can be found on the record label’s website.

Oleg Ledeniov