With bated breath this writer entered NEC’s Williams Hall on May 23rd to hear a recital by the enigmatic Vassily Primakov. I had heard Primakov on many occasions while a student at Juilliard more than a decade ago, be it at one of the weekly “piano forums” in Paul Hall or at his Alice Tully Hall debut (where he performed Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes and Rachmaninoffs 2nd Sonata and “Corelli Variations” after winning the William Petschek Debut Recital Award) and was always carried away by the emotional depth of approach. Now, so many years later, I was anxious to find out whether my infatuation with his playing was akin to a teenager’s infatuation with a Mahler symphony — very real but perhaps ephemeral — or whether the psychologically probing quality of his interpretations would mean as much to me now as it did then.
Primakov is not likely a stranger to the Intelligencer readership. Two of his recitals have been reviewed here: “Anticipation Rewarded — Primakov at Tannery”, July 26, 2011 (here) and the somewhat condescending “Young Pianist with Promise — Primakov in Rockport” (here), March 12, 2012. Since I last heard him, Primakov has released 12 CDs and one DVD albums for Bridge Records and started a recording label smartly named “LP Classics” with his piano-duo partner, Natalia Lavrova, who was featured in the second half this concert in Suite for Two Pianos No. 2, Op. 23, “Silhouettes” (1892), and Suite for Two Pianos No. 4, Op. 62 by Anton Arensky.
The first half of the program featured Primakov as a soloist, in Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza, op. 38/1 (the first work from his series “Forgotten Melodies”) and a generous selection of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes from opp. 3, 23 and 32. Primakov’s Rachmaninoff set has already been reviewed here and is also presented in its entirety, though in different order on his recent all-Rachmaninoff CD album (Bridge 9348).
It seems that Primakov’s intention, both in terms of repertoire line-up and interpretative approach, was to shift the focus from colorful and explosive bravura often associated with Russian piano music and its performance and to concentrate instead on the themes of memory and loss. Both in the Medtner, which according to its title deals directly with reminiscences, and in the Rachmaninoff preludes, from which Primakov chose some of the slower, stranger and sadder ones, (other than blizzard-like C minor and the concluding jubilant B-flat Major), the pianist painted bleak emotional landscapes of emptiness and nostalgia. His approach to pianistic color is as non-Kandinsky as one can imagine and, invariably, focus fell on various hues and shades of the darker palette. Primakov treated the Rachmaninoff set as one narrative, interconnecting and relating the moods from one piece to the next and never letting the dramatic tension flag, either within or between the pieces, an approach that cast a hypnotic spell over the listener.
“In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten” said Rimsky-Korsakov of the composer. While this might be true, to this writer the real problem with these works is that Arensky perpetually shifts between “art” and “entertainment” unable to settle in/on either. A more flattering analysis might conclude that he managed to straddle that wonderful line between artistic depth and diversion but, while listening to the two suites, I can’t help but feel the composer’s sense of insecurity about being in either world.
The merit of the actual works aside, Lavrova and Primakov succeed in finding a simultaneously serious and playful approach to these multi-movement pieces, capturing the various moods and depicting through sounds that scent and atmosphere of the French “salon” transplanted to Russia. Bring a plateful of crêpes and some black caviar — and any objections to the substance of these pieces might quickly dissipate.