Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
The Complete Mazurkas
Vassily Primakov (piano)
rec. 25-27 April, 2014, Yamaha Artists Salon, New York City
LP CLASSICS 1021 A/B [75:40 + 74:12]
Vassily Primakov’s Chopin mazurkas, all fifty-one of them recorded in just three days, are one of his finest achievements yet. They are hard to pigeonhole, since he is willing to vary his approach work-to-work, but in general Primakov offers a strong sense of the dance rhythms, held in balance with a willingness to use plenty of rubato of the kind Chopin so favored. He is often slower than usual, as in the epic Op. 24 No. 4 in B flat minor, but even here, the major key sections return to bright dancing vigor. Listening to, for instance, Op. 63 No. 3, I admire that he can start with elegiac poetry and then bring in forceful power for the recapitulation.
Part of this must be the spontaneity of such a quick recording session. With fifty-one works to prepare for three days in the studio, Primakov must have, to some extent, followed his instincts and judgments in the moment. I wonder how many alternative takes there were, and how different they felt. He does know this music extremely well: a decade prior, he recorded 21 of the mazurkas for a recital on the Bridge label. The revisit may be explained by the fact that Primakov co-owns the LP Classics label and co-executive produces all its albums, along with duo partner Natalia Lavrova.
To zoom in on a single mazurka: my favorite of all has always been the muted, melancholy Op. 17 No. 4 in A minor, with a weeping ending that trails off, ending unresolved. Primakov is slower than is typical, his transition into the contrasting major-key section sensitive and keen not to make the contrast jarring. He seems to slow down almost to the point of oddity in the final pages; this is not bound to be my favorite individual performance, but in the context of a cycle, is interesting to hear.
Complete collections of the Chopin mazurkas have become more common in recent years, as the industry has moved toward “completist” programs for new albums. In 2013 I wrote about Russell Sherman’s downright bizarre, but oddly fascinating, cycle (review). Primakov’s is more conventional, but still quite individual. His playing is certainly in much better, more Chopin-attuned taste than the jacket he’s wearing on the cover. The Yamaha is never my favorite piano, as it often sounds cold, but here suits the music and performer quite well, and is recorded in pristine sound.