in: Reviews

March 12, 2012

Young Pianist with Promise: Primakov in Rockport


This was my first view of the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, a beautifully designed and beautifully appointed small hall with excellent acoustics, in a two-year-old building in the heart of downtown Rockport. The back wall of the stage is an enormous window overlooking the harbor to the north; a mechanized screen can cover this within a few seconds, if the performer wishes, but even with the open view one has no trouble seeing the performer on the well-illuminated stage. The side walls are made up of large panels of inlaid slices of limestone, subtly decorative, and one might fear sound-trapping and sound-absorbing, but the hall has an unmistakable lively sound.

Vasily Primakov is a 32-year-old Russian pianist of formidable sound and skill. He chose a big Romantic program at Rockport yesterday afternoon that could easily have slaughtered a less-gifted musician and carried it out with an aplomb that brought the capacity audience to its feet. If I sound excessively critical in this report, it is because I think this young man has exceptional promise.

He began with 15 Schubert waltzes chosen from different collections compiled and published in Schubert’s lifetime. The chronological composition of these lovely dances is often impossible to determine, because many of those published under a single opus number or D number might have been composed years apart. Primakov selected them with attention to close key relationships, beginning and ending with no. 1 of the Valses nobles, D 969, and including the beloved “Zart” waltz in A major, D 779 no. 13, which dates from before 1825; this is one of the waltzes chosen by Liszt for his Soirées de Vienne. My one cavil with Primakov’s otherwise excellent performance of these pieces was his often excessive rubato. Schubert wrote these pieces for dancing, in which one would naturally find less flexibility of tempo; in the concert hall, of course, there should be more freedom of tempo — but from piece to piece, and not so much within each piece.

Schumann’s “Third Grand Sonata” in F minor, op. 14, which he called Concerto without Orchestra, has always puzzled me when I have studied it in score. It was a rare treat to hear this seldom-performed work live. It is a work of sprawling dimensions in four movements; I timed it at 31 minutes. The Allegro brillante first movement and the Molto commodo Scherzo are all over the place with extra notes and not nearly enough thematic or tonal contrast; the Rondo finale, Prestissimo possibile, is shorter but still insufficiently varied in texture. History’s judgment on this work seems to have been that Schumann aimed high in this work and missed; he took even more risks in the Kreisleriana op. 16 and the Phantasie op. 17, but hit the mark right on; so maybe this less successful venture was a necessary step for him. One thinks of other “concerto without orchestra” solo pieces, including the 25-minute-long G-sharp minor movement in Alkan’s op. 39 Etudes, as well as Chopin’s Allegro de concert, op. 46, from the A major Concerto that he never completed. But Schumann learned a lesson, too, as shown by his next actual Sonata for piano, the one in G minor, op. 22, which is more successful simply because of its workable proportions.

The second half of Primakov’s program was Chopin, and the centerpiece, interspersed with three mazurkas and a waltz, was all four of the Scherzos. These represent a bold and even dangerous choice for any pianist, because they require a perfectly finished and perfectly smooth technique such few pianists acquire even in a lifetime. The Scherzo in B minor, op. 20, composed in 1831 when Chopin was 21, is a work that made history; like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, composed one year earlier, this Scherzo represents a kind of music utterly unlike any previously written, and that one could never have imagined only four years after the death of Beethoven. The improvisatory spirit is a main characteristic of all of Chopin’s Scherzos, but the tone is perfectly set in this first one. The pianistic gestures seem so randomly assorted that one has the impression of Chopin picking up a fistful of notes and flinging them in fury onto the paper, where they land in a perfectly organized pattern. The speed is dizzying; this is the only one of the four Scherzos to carry a metronome marking, which, “Presto con fuoco,” is 120 to the 3/4 measure, or 12 eighth-notes per second. In a well-tuned pre-concert lecture by Mark Randall, we heard Schumann’s remark about this work (remembering that scherzo is an Italian word meaning “jest”): “How is gravity to clothe itself, if jest goes about in such dark veils?” Or, in the words of a later writer, this is “dynamic, boiling music.” For all that raging sensibility in this Scherzo, there is a middle section of ineffable tenderness, based on a Polish Christmas carol, “Sleep, baby Jesus,” one of the very few times Chopin ever used a pre-existing melody.

The second Scherzo, op. 31, in B-flat minor or D-flat major, depending on your point of view, is the most popular of the four and is widely massacred by collegiate pianists with little realization of how difficult it really is. Primakov had considerable trouble with it, too, chiefly in the extensively developed leggiero of the Trio and the agitato and sempre con fuoco that follow. It is most important in these places to control the tempo carefully and not let the strong dynamics go overboard; the result can be messy, and it seemed that Primakov didn’t really know how to control this section, winding down to the reprise of the scherzo proper. In the last two pages, the più mosso was so fast it just didn’t make any sense; some of Chopin’s wildest dissonance is on display here and it has to be exquisitely set off.

The C-sharp minor Scherzo, op. 39, is dedicated to Chopin’s pupil Adolphe Gutmann, whose arms were said to be so strong that he could “knock a hole through the table.” This muscularity is evident in the double octaves that dominate the outer sections of the piece. The inner section is famous for its filigreed arpeggios, which clearly point to a radiant, expansive piano sound such as could be obtained from large, iron-framed instruments that were only just being developed in the 1830s. Primakov handled this piece well, especially in the mystical E minor section, but I would have preferred a more careful buildup to the Coda, and final measures that were less frantic.

I have heard several pianists describe the E major Scherzo, op. 54, as the most difficult of the four, simply because of gossamer touch that isn’t at all like a jeu perlé but ranges all over the keyboard with utmost fleetness. (I was present at Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Boston debut in Symphony Hall in 1958, when he played this scherzo with such effortless elegance that I could only think of Artur Rubinstein’s 1949 recording.) Chopin wrote careful fingerings for mm. 17-24, all quarter notes, which are hard enough in Presto, but left very few fingerings for the leggiero at mm. 66-72, which I still think of as almost impossible, at least for me. (The left-hand part at mm. 69-70 is only an accompaniment here, but Chopin soon develops it into a principal motive.) And what’s the joke in this delightful piece? I think it’s the unabashed parallel perfect fifths at mm. 55-56, which I have yet to hear discussed by any theorist.

This was the last piece on Primakov’s program and one could tell he was getting tired, because the dynamics were very assorted, especially in the Più lento middle section. And this would be my principal complaint with Primakov’s approach to this music, but not by any means confined just to him, for I hear it from many younger players today: the tendency to exaggerate forte dynamics even in a soft melodic line, for the purpose of in-your-face emphasis. Primakov also played Chopin’s slow A minor Waltz, op. 34 no. 2, and on the last page there is a hushed E major excursion of empyrean subtlety, with a soaring left-hand melody that never rises above pianissimo. Primakov stamped out this melody with such overbearing emphasis that one might have thought of trombones, instead of what most of us would have imagined as a solo cello by comparison.

Our pianist gave us one encore, Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op. 63 no. 3, with its well-known subtle canonic melody at the end. This was perfect.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.

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