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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 in F minor, Op.80 (1938/46) [28:30]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.2 in D major, Op.94a (1944) [22:53]
Five Melodies for Violin and Piano Op.35bis (1925) [13:09]
Gidon Kremer (violin); Martha Argerich (piano)
rec. Studio 4, Maison de la Radio BRT, Brussels, April 1991
Experience Classicsonline

I seem to remember this DG recording of two of Prokofiev’s finest chamber works rather dividing the critics on its first release. Listening to it in its latest mid-price incarnation, I can see why, though with such a volatile partnership as Kremer and Argerich the ‘faults’ are hardly a surprise. In fact, the somewhat brittle, hard-edged tone that Kremer produces and which seemed to elicit the most criticism, strikes me as virtually ideal for much of this music. Given Argerich’s similarly steely-fingered accompaniments, this is not a comfortable ride – nor should it be.

The Sonata No.1 is, to my ears at least, the finer of the two works, a dark, sombre and powerfully brooding piece that fully captures the atmosphere in which it was conceived, that of Stalin’s terror and the ever-present fear of the ‘knock-on-the-door’. Argerich sets the tone for this mood superbly in those bleak opening bars, the deep octaves building in intensity before Kremer’s icy-toned violin joins in. Forget the warm, burnished tone of other players, Kremer sees this for what it is – full of foreboding, yet almost hypnotic in its doleful lyricism. The second movement allegro brusco sees the players going full pelt, freewheeling virtuosity laid firmly at the door of the music. The ghostly andante seems full of painful memories, and Kremer’s beautifully-gauged harmonic wisps (2:27) seem to say it all. The finale rounds things off in true style, these two artists obviously enjoying the fireworks but really listening to each other.

The Sonata No.2 is an altogether warmer, more obviously approachable work, adapted from an earlier flute piece at the suggestion of David Oistrakh, who famously recorded both sonatas with Richter in the early 1970s. Though it suits the Kremer/Argerich approach rather less well, this is still a performance brimful of character, fully bringing out the nuances and subtleties in Prokofiev’s ironic juxtapositions. This is most obvious in the lovely third movement (another andante) where their playing even suggests shades of Ravel. It’s true a mellower tone from Kremer and a shade less aggressive accompaniment may be what some listeners would want here, but there is such musicality and conviction that I doubt you’ll feel short-changed.

The Five Melodies, originally for wordless voice and piano, are like a compendium of the composer’s stylistic thumbprints, with echoes of Romeo and Juliet and the Classical Symphony abounding throughout in an enjoyable addendum to the main fare. It proves to be the choice of filler for many of Kremer and Argerich’s competitors, including very well received discs from Vadim Repin/Boris Berezovsky (Erato), Joshua Bell/Olli Mustonen (Decca) and the Shaham siblings on Vanguard.

In fact, these works have been extremely lucky on disc, but I can only say that I found these readings extremely rewarding, with two obviously temperamental artists showing a fierce, uncompromising brilliance in both works. Whether such diamond-edged playing is for you will remain a personal choice, but with close, intimate sound to suit the playing, and an interesting liner-note from Julian Haylock, I think this disc puts itself firmly back in the front line.

Tony Haywood


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