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Vassily Primakov, pianist
Integrated Vision: Vassily Primakov in Recital
By Gary Lemco
YOUTHFUL RUSSIAN virtuoso Vassily Primakov performed an impressive all-Chopin recital Sunday, November 20, 2011 at Le Petit Trianon Theatre, San Jose, under the auspices of the Steinway Society the Bay Area. Originally, Primakov had planned to speak prior to each selection, but he felt “the music says so much for itself,” and he announced only the Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2 that interrupted the sequence of the complete Scherzi after the B-flat Minor, Op. 31 had literally raised the entire house from their collective seats with the explosive poetry of his brilliant performance. The two mazurkas that did qualify as encores simply capped an already spectacular display of digital virtuosity complemented by an integrated vision of the Chopin opera under Primakov’s control.
Primakov opened with the Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 (1846), a water-piece or gondola-song whose character under Primakov soon expanded in drama to suggest a liquid ballade. Elegance of touch and coloristic nuance marked this reading, in which trills and quasi-cadenzas moved along a set path created by an underlying rhythmic pulse. Ever attentive to Chopin’s late harmonic sense, Primakov caressed the breathed phrases and kept enough tension on the line to integrate its sections into a poetic whole.
Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28 (c. 1837-1838), twenty-four miniatures in the all the chromatic keys as arranged by the circle of fifths, ensued. We note that no generic form of the “prelude” exists: they arrange themselves occasionally in pairs, but their mercurial and protean shapes adapt to mazurkas, etudes, nocturnes, and abbreviated sonata-movements. If the C Major generates a polished symmetry, the A Minor immediately journeys to a Dante chaos, asymmetrical and jagged, its metrics and phrase lengths looking quite ahead to the world of Mussorgsky, Berg and Webern. Yet the Preludes remain eminently vocal instrumentalism, and rarely—even beyond the examples set by J.S. Bach—has the piano assumed such alternately percussive and arioso prowess. For the most part, Primakov employed bare pedal to his idiosyncratic approach to these gems, sometimes lifting a secondary voice to a new height. His only digital glitch occurred in the G-sharp Minor Presto Prelude, when a memory slip threw Primakov into a temporary fluster. A liquid G Major, a dramatically tempered E Minor, a fateful E Major, a fiery B-flat Minor, and a passionate series from the C Minor through the D Minor had the audience in thrall: we could only wish the applause would respect fermatas a bit longer to savor the pregnant silence after the spiritual odyssey.
The second half devoted itself to a survey of the Chopin Scherzos (1832-1842), pieces in ¾ which depart from any humorous definition of the genre to become what Liszt called “the breathings of stifled rage and suppressed anger.” But this, too, oversimplifies the song-form of the scherzi, and especially the E Major Scherzo, Op. 54, the sunniest of the set, less overtly Byronic and gravitating through its improvisatory first five notes to a lovely central episode in C-sharp minor.
The B Minor Scherzo’s opening two chords led to a wild frenzy of emotion, mitigated by a tender central section in B Major that utilizes a Polish noel, “Sleep, little Jesus.” Primakov could evoke peace and languor as well as fury in Chopin, and his supple emotional transitions proved seamless and stylistic. And even though the B-flat Minor Scherzo had that alchemy of “tenderness, boldness, love, and contempt” dear to Schumann, it did not relax in quite the way the music did after Primakov “intervened” with the “mystical” reading of the A Minor Waltz, the very spirit of Romantic nostalgia and the dream of a passing way of life. The C-sharp Minor Scherzo proved potent and portentous at once, its chorale motif answered by cascades of chromatic runs fluent and heartfelt. The breadth of the Scherzo became absolutely volcanic in its latter pages, an effect Primakov repeated in the coda of the E Major, whose final chord brought the audience to hosannas of praise for an accomplished virtuoso who invokes convincing “truth and poetry” in the music he champions. ♫
Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly reviews for
Classical Music Guide. He lives in California.
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