Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval, Op.9 (1835) [31:20]
Kreisleriana, Op.16 (1838) [31:59]
Arabeske, Op.18 (1838) [8:02]
Vassily Primakov (piano)
rec. March/April 2009, Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark
BRIDGE 9300 [71:41]

When a young pianist aspires to challenge the great "stars" of the past and the present, he probably can't do any better than to record a coupling of Schumann's Carnaval and Kreisleriana. For all the great ones did them and have left a rich legacy of reference recordings. What can I say - the great ones will have to move a little and make a place for the newcomer! Vassily Primakov's interpretation goes straight to the top tier.

I never was a huge fan of Schumann's Carnaval: it seemed to contain more pretence than substance. Primakov's testimony has swayed my opinion a lot. His Carnaval is thoughtful, balanced, beautifully played. He does not emphasize one single side of the music, and does not disregard "less interesting" parts. As a result, they are not "less interesting" any more. The pianist boldly removes the golden dust from Schumann's elegant creation, and it emerges strikingly modern, as if the whole event took place in a contemporary ballroom.

The cycle opens under full steam, but without hurry. This marks out the entire album: Primakov never goes for bang-bang virtuosity, but lets the music sing, and gives us big Romantic waves upon which to surf. Pierrot turns out to be quite an essay on character: a little spooky, akin to Mussorgsky's Gnome from the Pictures. Eusebius does not dissolve into thin air, as it does in some other recordings. I never heard a more alive, sympathetic and coquettish Coquette. Rubato is used freely but is very natural. Even "transitional" items like Réplique or Reconnaissance are presented as miniature masterpieces. Chiarina does not have a single note pushed too hard, and with such careful handling it shines with even greater beauty. But what completely swept me off my feet was the dreamy, pastel-toned Chopin. The waltzes lilt and sway, Paganini rocks, and Colombina has a first-class quarrel with her Pantalon. Finally, the Davidsbündler unite in their grand final waltz-march, with all the fireworks and bravura you could wish for. I never cared for Carnaval. After listening to Primakov, I think that I love it.

Kreisleriana. There is no pretence here. This is one of the great masterpieces of musical history: a gripping self-portrait of one of its most eccentric and ingenious composers. And here, again, Primakov does not disappoint. About almost every Kreisleriana that I have heard, I have had some reservation. It was either too dry (Kempff) or too watery (Pollini), too reckless (Argerich) or too pushed (Wirssaladze). Sometimes the fingerwork was unsteady, even with giants like Horowitz or Cherkassky. Often, instead of hearing the music you heard the fingers. But I find nothing to pinpoint on this disc. Every note, even in the most dense passages, is placed with perfect accuracy. There is an effect of three-dimensionality, well aided by the excellent recording quality. The fast passages are appropriately demonic, the slow ones are lyric, and the overall impression is ultimately dramatic.

And finally, Arabeske. Can something new be said here? Apparently, yes. Just compare the times. Horowitz - 6'18". Pollini - 6'24". Primakov - 8'02". It does not sound slow. It seems as if the pianist has rebuilt the piece from its elements, transforming the rondo-romance into a fantasy. Every episode has its face. The A minor episode receives an unexpected tango flavor. And the ending, which usually seems rather poorly attached to the whole, is suddenly natural. The tempo is very much alive, and soft rubato makes the music breathe. I won't say that this reading discards the great and the good of old: but it definitely offers a very interesting alternative view.

I had not heard Vassily Primakov before; but on this evidence he is equipped with both a deep intuitive understanding of the music, and the power to bring this understanding to life. You rarely hear so much thought behind each note. And he is not afraid to do things his way. So, don't think "Oh, please, not another Carnaval! I already have three Kreislerianas!" You want new things? This is fresh. I hope he plans to record more Schumann!

The recording quality is excellent, and the extensive notes by Malcolm MacDonald are high literature. My Recording of the Month, definitely.

Oleg Ledeniov