Moscow on the Hudson
Alice Tully Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C from the WTC, Book I
Frederic Chopin: 24 Preludes
Serge Prokofieff: Sonata # 4
Oded Zehavi: Memories
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Sonata # 2
Vassily Primakov (piano)
I have a tendency to classify a great many performers as “young”, but Vassily Primakov actually is, still studying for his bachelor’s at Juilliard. A product of the Soviet system and the Moscow Central Special Music School, Primakov recently won a competition at his American school, the prize being a recital downstairs at Alice Tully Hall. I attended this evening primarily because I was impressed with the choice of program, a fiendishly difficult combination of three notoriously challenging pieces, and was healthily skeptical as to whether such a novice could pull it off. As is my wont, I had already decided to allow for his youth and inexperience in the pursuit of the greater good of promoting classical music’s fragile future.
But no such sympathetic angle was necessary to heap praise upon this decidedly mature and confident artist. The program was one of highly impressive technical wizardry (not terribly surprising considering the level of study at the school) and an extremely polished sense of musicianship (much more of a delight and unexpected thrill). The opening Bach prelude was an intellectually satisfying beginning, as it pointed out the genius of Chopin to arrange his 24 pieces in the genre in a manner similar to the old Leipzig master (except that the romantic arranges his preludes in all possible key signatures in the order of the circle of fifths). The absence of fugues in the Chopin allows for a stunning variety of shapes and sizes of the preludes, the moods manically shifting unpredictably. Primakov sensed the difference in both style and content in these two first half pieces, performing the Bach with a profound sense of delicacy (in both touch and meaning) and varying the Chopin in a very colorful manner. His sure technique stood him in good stead, allowing him to take flight in a panoply of poetic interpretations, each tailored to the individual prelude’s ultimate emotional nature. His personal sense of rubato (particularly apparent in the Etude that he chose for an encore) placed a unique stamp upon this music of the most accomplished composer of this particular musical device. This was mature and interesting pianism of the highest order.
Befitting the pianist’s age, the recital’s most moving performance was the Prokofieff. Written to commemorate his dear friend of student days, Maximilian Schmidthof, who sent a suicide note to the composer just before doing himself in, the 4th Sonata is filled with teenaged angst as intense as any composition by Kurt Cobain. Again this fine concert artist combined a steady touch with a heartfelt sense of the expressive center of the work. The new Israeli piece was also energetic and exciting, a fine coupling for the dissonances of the Prokofieff. This is difficult music to absorb on a first hearing, but there was little doubt that the pianist is a firm advocate for its creative legitimacy.
The Rachmaninoff was simply dazzling. This youth’s ability to build the slow movement into a such a glorious structure is positively indescribable. In the outer movements, Primakov’s steely power was evident in the right hand and his navigation of the difficult cross-handed passages was such that this renowned keyboard obstacle course was rendered tame and silken. Rachmaninoff, in many ears the greatest pianist of his century, had a flaw as a composer for the keyboard. Because of his superhuman agility and massive hands, he sometimes forgot that mere mortals needed to perform his music as well. In some instances, the composer even approached his friend Vladimir Horowitz (no mean technician himself) to edit passages that would otherwise be far above even a veteran artist’s performing level. None of these difficulties were an impediment to Mr. Primakov; in the end, only the music came through.
Having said all of this, there are still challenges ahead for this artist. The Chopin revealed a tendency for a lazy left hand and there are still accuracy issues with which to deal. But for an undergraduate this was a spectacular recital. Vassily Primakov has that rarest of qualities: the soul of a musician. You can’t teach that.
Frederick L. Kirshnit