We have been dying to read this review since May, when we heard from the International Record Review letting us know that Vassily’s latest Chopin release will not only get reviewed and published in their June issue, but has also received their coveted IRR OUTSTANDING!!! Since IRR is a British publication, getting our hands on it here in the States proved a little challenging, but thankfully, one of our fantastic British buyers, scanned and emailed us the review that inspired him to purchase several of Vassily’s CDs. We are truly grateful to IRR and Patrick Rucker (the reviewer) for this beautiful review and hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW | OUTSTANDING!
Broad generalizations, especially in art, are dangerously prone to over-simplification. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to say that Chopin interpreters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries generally fall into one of two categories: the objective and the personal. The objectivists view Chopin within a historical context, as the heir of Hummel, Weber and Field, and the contemporary of Schumann and Liszt. The expressive ways and means of their Chopin interpretations – tempos, articulation, sound production, passagework, narrative strategies, pedaling – could, with slight stylistic adjustments, be applied as well to other high-Romantic music. Among the ‘objectivists,’ I would place Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, Backhaus, Novaes, Pollini, Lortie and McCawley. The ‘personal’ camp, on the other hand, favours a more hermetic approach, viewing Chopin’s oeuvre as a sort of hortus conslusus of Romanticism, subject to expressive devices rarely used in other music. Their interpretations often feature a tendency to linger over detail, lavish rubato, focus on subsidiary polyphonic lines, idiosyncratic phrasing and accentuation.
A list of pianists espousing this ‘personal’ approach might include Cortot, Horowitz, Jonas, Michelangeli, Pletnev, Pogorelich and Anderszewski. Just about anyone who loves Chopin’s music can point to beautiful performances of great integrity from both categories. By temperament and training, my inclinations tend toward the objective approach, but Vassily Primakov, whose new two-disc Chopin set unquestionably exemplifies the subjectively ‘personal’ school, wins me over completely.
This is vivid, deeply felt Chopin, compellingly presented and covering a wide canvas. The four Ballades and four Scherzos alternate between the larger structures of the three Sonatas. Their chronological ordering – Opp. 4, 20, 23, 31, 35, 38, 39, 47, 52, 54, 58 – delineates Chopin’s development from youth to ripe maturity, exhibiting at the same time a richly varied progression of affects.
When it comes to the Chopin Scherzos, it often seems that the Russians long ago cornered the market. The great Heinrich Neuhaus, teacher of Gilels and Richter, insisted that the key to interpreting Chopin’s grim jokes is strict adherence to Liszt’s admonition to count each three-beat bar as a single beat within groups of four. Primakov follows this advice, and combines it with some secrets of his own. From his fingers, the two terrifying chords that announce the B minor Scherzo sound like bells of purest silver. The fury that erupts in their wake spreads like wildfire, engulfing everything before it. Amidst this configuration, the Polish Christmas carol of the trio is a cool oasis of calm, filled with sentiment without any trace of sentimentality. The B flat minor Scherzo has been so historically overplayed that it has almost become too blunt to enter the ear. Primakov’s conception is startlingly fresh, apt and concise. It flows inevitably, like speech. You may find yourself reaching for the remote, as I have, to verify what you’ve just heard. The torrential octaves of the C sharp minor Scherzo are elegantly and eloquently articulated. Meanwhile each of the intervening noble chorale figures is imbued with its own special character.
The G minor Ballade, with its drawn-out transitions mitigating sharp contrasts between sections, was for me least appealing. Yet even here, a persuasive inner logic is at work, and the narrative thread is never lost. The Presto con fuoco, among the most daunting of Chopin’s hell-bent codas, is all clarity and precision.
The F major Ballade, on the other hand, is probably one of the most beautiful I’ve heard. Simple, masculine, direct, it speaks from the heart, and for once seems to make complete emotional sense. At its quiet conclusion, there is no hint of anticlimax, but an ineffable desolation. An amazingly unfettered freedom attends the A flat Ballade, yet its gestures, contours and defining lilt remain shapely and graceful. The profound grief that unfolds in the F minor Ballade is all the more poignant for its understatement. The music comes in great surges and waves, within which the minute intricacies of Chopin’s polyphony are exquisitely articulated.
These wonderful performances notwithstanding, this recording’s abiding achievement could well be the three Sonatas. I adore those early, not quite ready-for-prime-time Chopin pieces for the glimpses they provide into his nascent genius. I think Primakov must love them too. He takes the first movement of the Sonata, Op. 4, a product of Chopin’s seventeenth year, at face value, pointing up its inventiveness without attempting to disguise the occasionally awkward passage. The minuet, actually closer to a Landler, is alive with an infectiously youthful ebullience. An atmosphere not unlike the early nocturnes pervades the delicate Larghetto, with its curious 5/4 time signature. By the concluding Rondo, that form so congenial to Chopin, Primakov unleashes a bravura that seems the perfect suggestion of the marvel the young composer must have been at his instrument. Detailed characterization of the two great mature Sonatas would require more space then available here. Suffice it to say that everything in Op. 35 leads towards and away from its heart, the famous Marche Funebre, heard in a performance of rare dignity and implacable eloquence. In Op. 58, Primakov comes very close to stopping time in the Largo. The ensuing finale, that so often seems a relentless struggle, here sounds like an intrepid journey, perhaps even a pilgrimage, embellished with elaborate, near-sculptural details, that finally soars to a transcendent apotheosis.
Having followed Primakov’s career for years now, one of the things which most impresses me is the extraordinary growth musically, pianistically and, one has to feel, humanly – evidenced in each successive recording. He is now 34. His music-making, though still bracingly youthful and risk-taking, has about it the settled quality and authority of a man in his mid-fifties. For many of us who grew up around pianos, Chopin is a fact of life, imbibed almost from the cradle. Surely I am not alone in saying there are certain Chopin pieces I cannot remember not knowing. What a joy it is – and how humbling – to encounter an artist like Primakov, who, through some special alchemy of hands, mind and heart, can show us a fresh, revived, inexhaustible Chopin.
~ Patrick Rucker