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On November 8 the Classical Concert Series audience in Sandhills Community College's Owens Auditorium got much more than flashy technique from pianist Vassily Primakov. Born in Moscow in 1979, he won first prize in the Rachmaninov International Young Artist Competition in Russia at the age of 15, came to New York two years later to study with Jerome Lowenthal at the Juilliard School, and won the William Petschek Piano Recital Award in 2001. His first prize in the 2002 Young Concert Artists International Auditions opened up numerous recital opportunities including this one, in Pinehurst. Primakov's first CD, an all-Chopin recital, is on the Tavros label.
Primakov is his own man, musically, and his deep, personal connection to the music he chooses was evident in his brief comments, his dry wit, and the intensity that he communicated as he played. Primakov opened his concert with a fastidious performance of Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, which the pianist said is the greatest set of variations ever written. The easily recognized theme is the Air from the third movement of the first of Handel's Suites de pieces de clavecin of 1733. Using a wide palette of tone color, Primakov played the 25 variations with great discernment and strong contrast. Unlike many prize-winning pianists, Primakov never pushed the volume but used a refined sense of dynamics so the loud passages were all the more telling.
Phillip Glass's "minimalism" has never been my cup of tea, and it was probably even less so for many people at the concert. Primakov felt a profound attraction to Glass's soundtrack score to Stephen Daldry's The Hours, which received nine Academy Award nominations, including one for best score. When the pianist found Michael Riesman's transcription, he determined to add it to his repertory. The four parts are "The Poet Acts," "Morning Passages," "Tearing Herself Away," and "The Hours." All Glass' signature stylistic elements are present — repeated patterns of sound, arpeggios, and scale passages. This work is much more expressive than many other scores by Glass that I have endured. Primakov made maximum use of color and timbre and brought great contrast to the score — as in a section where the left hand has a fast, repeated figure while the right hand simultaneously plays a brighter figure at a different tempo. It takes considerable artistry to sell a new work to a skeptical audience or reviewer, but sell it he did.
Since playing Chopin in his first recital, at age ten — Primakov said he started studying "rather late at age eight" — Primakov has kept the composer central to his repertoire. After playing each of the four Ballades separately, he recently began to program them as a complete group. Before starting, he wryly recounted a possible story for the almost-wholly-lyrical third Ballade, in A-flat, Op. 47, which is based on a Russian short story about a wanderer who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a mermaid. Primakov played each theme used in the ballad, demonstrating the "story-telling in music" aspect of the form invented by Chopin. The performances were dominated by elegant style, gorgeous arpeggios, sparkling trills, and ardent phrasing. Primakov did not hesitate to conjure up a more robust forte than we are used to in Chopin's music, but in this context the dynamics made perfect sense.