Dvorák's only Piano Concerto may be fiendish to play, but it's worth the effort, says pianist Vassily Primakov
When did you first get to know Dvorák's Piano Concerto in G minor?
I’ve known about this Piano Concerto since I was very little. And honestly from the beginning to the end it’s a great piece. For Russians the best-known recording was Richter’s – he championed the piece and played the original version. And I've always liked it – it’s a very beautiful piece, and neglected. About a year ago the producer of Bridge Records, David Starobin, and I started talking about doing a project, something a bit offbeat. And that’s when I thought of the Dvorák Piano Concerto, and then it seemed like I should do some solo pieces too. Dvorák has written an amazing amount of solo piano music – I admit I didn't know much about it so I got scores to read through, and chose some pieces from the Poetic Tone Pictures. I fell in love with them. It’s really a project full of love and passion.
But this isn't a particularly well-known piano concerto...
Pianists in general are spoilt as we have such an immense repertory. Some concertos are less interesting musically than, say, Dvorák but get played way more often. Dvorák’s Piano Concerto is a substantial 40-minute piece, and pianistically awkward. I've had two versions in front of me – the original and the revision of the piano part by Wilélm Kurz, a Czech teacher and pianist in the early 20th century. Kurz’s version is much better in terms of pianistic writing. But the more I started going into it the more I realised that Dvorák's version made a lot more sense. It's worth the effort. With the orchestra it’s great. Although I have to admit I used some of the tweaks Kurz used, I’d say I’m playing 97 per cent Dvorák and 3 per cent Kurz.
Its premiere was at a ‘Slavonic’ concert in 1876 – how ‘Slavonic’ is this piece?
The whole of Dvorák's music has this very folk-oriented feel to it – in the last movement of this Concerto there are dance-like folk-style themes with accents, a jumpy feel to it. If you study a little bit of Czech music in general you get a sense of where he’s coming from stylistically and culturally.
Can you tell us about the Poetic Tone-Pictures?
It’s a cycle that contains 13 piano pieces. There’s a piece in there called At The Old Castle, there’s Sorrowful Reverie, At a Hero’s Grave – [they all have] atmospheric titles. It seems to me Dvorák was toying with this idea of Impressionism – in a way he was ahead of his time. And I’m sure Schumann’s programmatic music was inspiring for him. But the person that came to mind for me was Debussy – his preludes each has an exotic name and an atmosphere. Dvorák wrote these pieces in 1889, at the end of the century, so before Debussy and Impressionism. They are undiscovered treasures.
So what’s next?
I’m collaborating with the Odense Symphony Orchestra on a complete cycle of Mozart Piano Concertos. All 27 eventually. That’s a big project that’ll take a couple of years, but it’s exciting and I love working with this orchestra. I’m also excited because Danish composer Poul Ruders has just – as far as I know – completed a concerto for me that I’ll be performing pretty soon. I love his music and the first draft of the score looked fantastic.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Audio clip: Dvorák: Piano concerto in G minor – Allegro con fuoco
CD details: Dvorák: Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33; Poetic Tone-Pictures, Op. 85
Vassily Primakov (piano); Odense Symphony Orchestra/Justin Brown