Vassily Primakov’s piano recital on July 24 was the most anticipated event of the Tannery Pond season. It is hard to believe that he is only thirty and still viewed by many as a young or emerging artist. This is certainly not evident in his mature musicianship and in nature of his repertory, which includes some important contemporary works, like Poul Ruders’ Piano Concerto, which was written expressly for him, along with some challenging nineteenth-century compositions outside the basic repertory, like Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Grand Sonata, the Dvorák Piano Concerto, and now Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in f minor, which he played in this recital in Schumann’s first version with an extra movement, a scherzo following the first movement — a rarity, and definitely among the treasures of the evening.
Primakov has lived in the US for some time, but his early studies in his native Moscow, first with his mother, Maria Primakova, and then with Vera Gornostaeva at the Moscow Central Special Music School, seem to have left an indelible mark on him. Although he continued his studies at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and later with Jerome Lowenthal at Juilliard, his playing immediately calls to mind the great Russian tradition of virtuoso playing and the particular perspective on musical emotion that we associate with it. No matter how intense the feeling expressed by a Schumann, a Chopin, or a Rachmaninoff, the poise of the virtuoso focuses attention on the music, so that whatever feeling is expressed in contained within it. The strongest presence throughout is the music as the composer wrote it. By this I don’t imply any kind of literalism in Primakov’s playing, rather a strong awareness of his own position as a pianist, as a musician, and as a human being. As he plays, he is able to experience and to respond to the sounds he himself is making, and from his eloquent facial expressions, it is clear that he is responding to the musical shapes and harmonies, as well as to what they express. This is sophisticated musicianship, but in this sophistication you will never find a trace of coldness or fussiness. His robust approach to the keyboard wouldn’t allow that.
The handsome Shaker Tannery, built in 1834, where the concerts take place, exacts its price on hot days, when it absorbs all the heat and humidity there is and holds it cruelly within its walls to torture the performer and his audience. Only a noisy fan provides relief, and this goes off during the music. I understand that a few of the ticket-holders cancelled out, to be replaced quickly enough by people who might have had to be turned away. Primakov could not hide his discomfort, and there was a change of shirt during the break, but once he set into the music, his concentration was unimpaired.
Preparation is a central part of Primakov’s programming. He has put together a suite of fourteen, all arranged in a coherent sequence according to key and mood. Schubert could have strung these short dances together in different sequences to provide an interlude for dancing at one of the musical evenings the composer held for friends and patrons, or they simply could have served well at a dancing party. Here, they belonged entirely to the world of the piano recital, in which they provided an engaging curtain-raiser and prepared the audience for the serial listening demanded by the far more substantial Rachmaninoff Preludes which took up the entire second half. The sequence of the Schubert waltzes played at Tannery was made by Primakov himself. On his wonderful CD on Bridge Records, he used three dance suites to “ventilate” the Op. 90 and 142 Impromptus that make up the core of the program. Two of those were compiled by his early teacher, Vera Gornostaeva, showing that he encountered Schubert’s waltzes and developed an affection for them at an early age. As he played them, there was little of the relaxed intimacies of Viennese party music, and all of the weight and discipline of a public piano recital.
Primakov produced a full sound from the Tannery Yamaha. Rhythms were crisp and cleanly articulated and the voices carefully balanced, as if the pieces were from the scherzi of a sonata. What interests the grown-up Primakov the most are the shapes of the lovely melodies and the mood shifts guided by harmonic modulations and contrasts. One could admire his force and technique even in these simple pieces.
The Schumann Third Sonata presents another set of problems altogether. Even in its revised version, as Primakov explained, in which harmonies were simplified and the first of two scherzi abandoned, the work is seldom played. It is knotty Schumann, difficult for the pianist and the audience. Clara, Primakov believes, influenced Robert to make the revisions, but the first version clearly seems preferable. In this, the first movement is rich in dissonant harmonies, and the first scherzo supplies a symmetrical balance around the beautiful slow movement, which now occupies the core of a five-movement work. Its running figures also prepare the listener for a similar rush of notes in the finale. In itself, it has a wonderfully obsessive, even insane, quality, which Primakov understood and brought out in loving detail. The sonata as a whole, especially the even crazier finale: “Prestissimo possibile,” can sound impulsive and amorphous. Primakov, first of all, brought some order to the whole, along with a virtuosic technique that allowed him to make the lines clear and balanced. Here, as in the Rachmaninoff Preludes and even in the Schubert waltzes, Primakov showed an especially keen ear for the overall texture and the interweaving of inner lines within it. The harmonic experimentation in the first version of the first movement helped clarify it, as well as give it color and tension. His control of pace and dynamic contrasts did the rest. What emerges is a passionate, turbulent, but coherent sonata form movement which provides a foundation for the ensuing four movements. Between the two scherzi the slow movement sits in its melancholy beauty, a set of variations on a somber theme by Clara, the least eccentric of the lot. Here Primakov’s treatment of the overlapping voices in different colors worked to special advantage. The second scherzo, following the marital dialogue of the slow movement, is less mercurial than the first one, but it does serve to raise the temperature for the furious rush of the finale, which starts of in a manner suggesting the Tarantella of Schubert’s C Minor Sonata or one of Mendelssohn’s finales in a similar vein, and becomes more toccata-like as it develops. Again, the incisiveness of Primakov’s chords and the clarity of his playing let us hear Schumann’s music without sacrificing any of its mad energy.
While you can find Schubert and Schumann somewhere in the pedigree of Rachmaninoff’s preludes (In fact, you can hear some phrases in the waltzes echoed in them), their true begetter is Chopin. Beyond that, they lie within the great Russian musical tradition. When they are played, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky periodically pass through the room. Hearing them, one has a strong sense of lineage, although it was Rachmaninoff, Skryabin, and later Prokofiev, who gave it a full pianistic voice in Russia. On this evening, it seemed as if all of Primakov’s control of color, pointing of harmonies, and virtuosity — which he in fact kept out of the limelight, until it really made sense in the return of an important theme, or in a blazing climax — was looking ahead to the twelve preludes (from Op. 3, 23, & 32) he selected from the twenty-four Rachmaninoff composed. (In fact he omitted one of them, presumably because of the heat.) If many of the preludes gave him the opportunity for impressive displays of technique and fiery bravado, he remained focused on the music throughout. Their essential qualities were contained in the moods and feelings they evoked, even in their spiritual nature. Each prelude creates a world in itself, each with its own atmosphere, scheme of chiaroscuro, and palette of colors, and Primakov understood that this came before pianistic display, although that is an essential part of them as well. Although he used extremely delicate pianissimi in the Schubert and Schumann, Rachmaninoff gave him the scope to muster a vast range of color and dynamics in these fully realized performances.
In his two encores he seemed to bring everything back home in a waltz and a mazurka by Chopin.
Primakov, unusually in this day and age, records actively—for Bridge Records. Not only are the Schubert waltzes available in a mini-recital with a group of Impromptus, a magnificent disc of twelve Rachmaninoff Preludes and the Corelli Variations was released in May (Bridge 9348). It was recorded in the superb acoustics of the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, on a Bechstein piano in virtually audiophile sound. Need I say more?