In the last three weeks I've had occasion to praise new recordings of the Chopin piano concertos. I started off like Fou Ts'ong very much, accompanied by the Sinfonia Varsovia. Then I bumped into the new set of complete Chopin piano and orchestra music on Decca, with Korean Kun Woo Paik, accompanied by the Warsaw Philharmonic under Antoni Wit. Both readings are certainly good in slightly different ways, including the fundamental physical essence of each player's keyboard touch, the subtle differences in recording approach and venue, and the difficult to fully describe distinctions in the two readings.
Now, suddenly, here comes another. These two Chopin piano concertos star Russian pianist Vassily Primakov. Paul Mann leads the Odense Symphony. A nice touch here is that the order of concertos one and two is reversed, in keeping with the actual historical order in which each concerto was written. The original numbering got reversed when the two concertos were published, but in real life, the published number two was actually number one. This happened with other composers too, famously including Beethoven. By the time composers got noticed for writing a piano concerto worth being published, they had often written their second. Earlier works got revived and noticed for publication, as the composer's fame (marketability?) grew.
So. Really nice to have the second concerto precede its later sibling, the first, on this disc. One renews an appreciation for just how much Chopin grew from the first to the second concertos.
Sound is good basic PCM stereo. The warmly balanced venue is the Carl Nielsen Hall in Denmark. No technical complaints then. The sound stage is more than up to its musical tasks, and the piano is very nicely dovetailed into the panorama of the band also on stage. The piano is a Steinway, Hamburg D, by the way. Sounds like a really nice Steinway, and its sound has been recorded just right, not too close, not to distant, especially in relation to the rest of the music going on in the Odense band departments. Like all effectively balanced recordings, this disc has a nice, solid, consistent bottom end, blossoming all deep green beneath, offering a natural frequency carpet for the flora and fauna so alive above that bottom end floor of the meadow lands.
Paul Mann chooses very mainstream tempos. His opening for the second concerto lays out a quasi-chamber orchestra sense of ensemble and intimacy of musical scale. The phrasing is flexible, such that the accusations of thickness in Chopin's band writing never for a single moment intrude upon enjoying the whole concerto accompaniment, just as Chopin originally wrote it. When Primakov makes his own entrance in the second concerto, he balances gracefully on that high wire between chamber music intimacy and attention-getting declamations. Then the band can rejoin him in touches that do not upset or hinder the balance so deftly poised, avoiding all the dangers of taking this sort of musical path.
Besides declamatory narrative, Primakov is immediately a young master of sparkle, Bel Canto melody, and that most difficult aspect of Chopin's magical writing, rubato. (Primakov was born in 1979, in Moscow.) As the music gathers speed, heft, and tonal force, this marvelous mix continues to hold Primakov in very good stead. He does not slight the sparkling beauty of Chopin's melodies and of Chopin's mysteriously chromatic figurations. The line springs forth whole. Although the full orchestra has its say in due time, the overall impression of this reading is that of a special, warm inwardness of personal disclosure. This means that this earliest piano concerto sounds less immature or tentative than usual.
Now a note about Primakov and rubato. If every a Chopin player was having a heady love affair with rubato, surely Vassily Primakov is that player. Yet not for a moment is this rubato eccentric. Now certain famous players of the past have been known for their marked rubato - French player Samson Francois and Russian Shura Cherkassy come quickly to mind - players who were famous for taking big risks and for being mostly able to get away with iconoclastic swagger and sway. Primakov shows himself to be a rubato gymnast of the first order, yet his rubato is nothing like Francois or Cherkassy. He can risk leaning way out in the melody or texture or speed in one little moment, only to strictly return to home base tempo and melody and texture in the next. Instead of leaving us with a see-saw impression of constantly stretching this way and that, Primakov's rubato is always able to connect with the deep center that will prove to connect however far out he goes in 'stealing time' with however far back he returns, coming home.
That is just about the same as saying, to my ears, that Primakov has a grasp of rubato which eludes even very, very great Chopin players - past and present. He reveals rubato as a deep structure of the overall musical narrative, not a superstructure built upon it ( no matter how beautifully in a suitable Bel Canto manner), and certainly not as an afterthought, added on later to Chopin's raw materials. Again, I hear this rubato gift as very unusual. I can honestly think of few Chopin players who might equal this dimension of Primakov's art; though certainly some very fine ones have been caught on disc (living players, and dead) no doubt.
I've always slightly preferred the first concerto to the second, in most readings. But here with Primakov and company, I find myself finally fully engaged with the second piano concerto. As Primakov and friends play it, the second is as touching and dewy fresh and fully formed in its Chopinesque musical ideas as the first. Bravo.
Now to the first piano concerto, written second, and placed second on this disc.
Again an orchestral opening that is more personally and warmly scaled, again something that sounds of chamber music dimension in phrasing and ensemble-based physicalities. Towards the end of this opening, the band must get more declamatory - that is built in. Then the ensemble falls back as the piano prepares to enter. Yes, the opening statement is clearly here, present, accounted for. Yet it again rings out in much warmer, more face to face tones and gestures than not. Again, that rubato so incapable of analysis and completely faceted description.
Clearly this first piano concerto is not going to bowl us over, sweeping us off our audience seats, so much as it is going to touch us, engage us, draw us in, in, in, in, in. By the time the piano wraps up its opening paragraphs, by the time we get to the main Bel Canto first movement melody, we are guests welcomed with deep grace and honesty and hospitality into a genius, and genial, host's most unguarded human spaces. Now I would not forgo for a second the bigger manners of other good readings of this concerto. Earl Wild's lovely effort comes readily to mind; it's already sitting on the fav shelves. I've already mentioned other worthies. This alternative reading will likely join the keepers, no hesitations.
By the time the climactic build-up of the first movement gathers, that familiar big-sculpted moment has all the reach and heft we normally hear it to embody as music. Because of all that has now gone before, however, it touches us in a very different place, all grand and all personal, simultaneously. Like other great composers who change us and who change our daily lives, this Chopin fellow is innately noble in human and musical bearing. No airs, no pretenses, no foibles of comparing himself vainly in competition with anybody else, either in the countryside or in the palace.
Another awareness seeps in. Primakov and his special way with rubato sounds all about breathing. Some great world religious literatures describe deity breathing life and spirit into humanity; and the music breathes life and spirit here, too. Those who might categorize Chopin as a profoundly pretty - mabe even recklessly pretty - composer (like Robert Schumann), might be shocked to find such spiritual depth seeping all through this concerto music. Suddenly I'm recalling John Keats and Ode to a Grecian Urn.
Like any regular epiphany, this unfolding comes together, right, all in uncanny time. The great slow movement of the concerto is next. Again the band does its telling, chamber-ensemble work to part the curtains in anticipation of the piano's entrance as star character. The same marvelous composer we knew in the first movement arrives again, in the second movement. The melody is now touched, now lighted with remembrance, nostalgia. All those little band solos, singing along with the piano, now sound less and less like far (let alone, stilted) musical background conversation at the other end of the room, and more like warm, friendly company, duetto. As the wonderful melody unfurls, we move from past to present, from recollection to direct assertions, alive, now. Bottom harmonies in the band add shadow three dimensional. The bell chime harmonies which point the second movement are played as finely as ever played. More directly, just themselves, all disguise however artful now drawn aside in favor of music that, as Beethoven wrote, goes out from the heart to the listening heart.
We have hardly finished being taken in confidence, than the last faster movement breaks upon us. It has plenty of sparkle, but it is in no hurry to get us out the door. The dance of this last movement is replete with a host's gratitude for our happening to care enough to visit - and linger, attentive. What could possibly be more to the point of life and art and home hearth and music, than genius shared among real friends?
Well. This disc of the Chopin piano concertos has been something, I'll tell you. I have met Chopin via many other dedicated musical interpreters; and I have been glad. This one is still yet something special, I can say. Very highly recommended. In the very best sense, A love affair with rubato.