Vassily Primakov is a Chopin obsessive. For this one could blame his first teacher Vera Gornostavea, whose entire curriculum was "Chopin, Chopin, Chopin," but even before he began his formal studies, the 14-year old Primakov had spent months teasing out the mysteries of the Waltz in E flat Major, Op. 18. Since that time, the pianist has constantly returned to these scores with the same intense rigor a rabbinical student might devote to the Talmud. "I have an emotional and a physical need to have this composer in my life at all times," Primakov has said, and described his ongoing engagement with the music as a "constant journey, constant searching." We are still fortunate enough to have several great Chopin pianists among us (Pollini, Argerich, Zimerman, Anderszewski and Hough), and there are, of course, many recorded performances by the likes of Horowitz, Rubenstein, Moravec, and Lipatti that will not be soon forgotten. But even in such august company, the 34-year-old Primakov can hold his own.
What's most surprising about these performances is their sense of spontaneity and improvisation. Given Primakov's studious nature, I was half expecting something more deliberate and willful. Quite the opposite, his approach is impulsive, Dionysian, and intensely personal. There are extremes of dynamics and tempo, explosive climaxes, a shameless use of rubato, and phrasing that can sometimes border on the idiosyncratic. And yet for all his freedom and elasticity, Primakov is never arbitrary or mannered. He's deep inside these scores, and there's a haunting intimacy in even the most assertive passages. The music always sings, breathes, flows with a fierce inner logic that never flags. Primakov captures both the violence and tenderness that are at the heart of Chopin's musical personality, and also the flashes of defiance and mordant humor. In the end, he strikes a remarkable balance between the lyric and the dramatic; there's a poetic touch, as well as a sure sense of narrative, especially in the Ballades and the last two Sonatas. And then there's the wide range of prismatic colors that Primakov conjures up from his Steinway D, superbly captured in demonstration-quality sound by Charlie Post's engineering. I could go on and on (and fear that I already have). So let me come right out and say it: these two discs represent some of the most exciting, spellbinding Chopin playing that I have heard in many a year, a perfect antidote to the mechanical and contrived performances that seem to dominate the market these days.
A few additional comments. Though I've grouped the pieces by
genre in the header (Sonata, Scherzo, Ballade), Primakov performs them in the
order of their composition. On disc one, for example, the Sonata No. 1 (Op. 4)
is followed by the Scherzo No. 1 (Op. 20), the Ballade No. 1 (Op. 23), the
Scherzo No. 2 (Op. 31), and the Sonata No. 2 (Op. 35). This gives us a
fascinating perspective on Chopin's development, from the not yet fully
blossomed First Sonata to the confident, risk-taking boldness of the Second.
Speaking of that First Sonata, I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember
ever having heard it before. Arkivmusic lists only 35 recordings of the First
(as compared to 219 for the Second), and it seems to have been a work
scrupulously avoided even by Chopin specialists of the past (no recordings by
Horowitz or Rubenstein, for example). So I was much surprised at what a
compelling and exquisite work it turned out to be, especially in this youthful,
Primakov has recorded several of these works before, and given his questing spirit, there's no doubt he'll return to most of them again. I will certainly be looking forward to those recordings. But I am very happy, very grateful to have experienced his current thoughts on the subject. These performances might be too adventurous for some, but for those who'd like a walk on the wild side, I couldn't recommend a recording more enthusiastically.