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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Complete works for violin and piano
Violin Sonata no.2 in D major op.94 (1943) [22:42]
Violin Sonata no.1 in f minor op.80 (1946) [26:07]
Cinq Mélodies op.35a (1920) [11:53]
Isabelle van Keulen (violin); Ronald Brautigam (piano)
rec. Sendesaal Bremen (DE), Germany, 18-20 November 2011

It would seem strange enough that such an inventive composer as Prokofiev should write only three works for violin and piano. It becomes simply staggering when you learn that in fact he composed only the violin sonata no.1 for this combination. The other two works are transcriptions: the second sonata was originally for flute and piano and the Cinq Mélodies were written as five songs in 1920. When you hear them you cannot understand why he should not have written more as they are so successful. I fact my reaction is similar to hearing of a really good composer being cut down in their prime; regret on reflecting what might have been. Added to that is the fact that the opus numbers and designations of the sonatas are totally misleading, since the second sonata, in its original guise, had its première before the first.
The lyrical nature and beautifully calm and peaceful atmosphere created by the Violin Sonata no.2 in D major belies the fact that it was written in 1943 against the background of the appalling events unfolding at the time in Russia where Leningrad was in the middle of the siege which it was to endure until the following year and the Battle of Stalingrad had only recently ended. Yet Prokofiev found himself able to write this wonderfully bright and sunny sonata with its memorable tunes. David Oistrakh was in the audience at the première in Moscow where the original version for flute and piano was played. He suggested to Prokofiev that he transcribe it for violin and piano and with his input this Prokofiev did, leaving the piano part untouched.
Now it is difficult to imagine that the sonata could have been written for anything other than these two instruments though the original is also hugely successful. The first movement opens with such a gentle dreamy tune that wins the listener over straight away and which dominates the movement. It is interspersed by rather more martial moments that, however, do not disturb the overridingly pastoral atmosphere that always returns to take command. The second movement, a scherzo is a witty piece of writing with Prokofiev’s characteristic use of irony to the fore. This has some brilliantly written sections that have the violin racing up and down the scales accompanied by the piano which is a true equal partner here. The third movement is full of material despite its short length in the form of a three part serenade. The finale begins with a strongly declared theme and is well deserving of its marking Allegro con brio since it brims over with life-affirming music that was certain to be much appreciated by audiences that needed taking out of themselves at this trying time in their county’s history.
What a contrast the first sonata is with its overwhelmingly dark nature. The work was commissioned by David Oistrakh and his long-time musical partner, pianist Lev Oborin. In response Prokofiev composed a work that really tested its performers with Prokofiev constantly pushing the two musicians to the very limit of their abilities of expression and the capabilities of the instruments. It was interesting to read in the notes that Prokofiev asked for the fast scales that appear at the end of the first and last movement to be expressed “like a wind on a graveyard”. The sonata is, as one would expect from this amazingly talented composer, a wonderfully expressive work of great beauty despite its overall sombre mood. The sonata was eight years in gestation since Prokofiev began it in 1938, two years after returning to the Soviet Union. He was working at a feverish pace, constantly putting the sonata aside in favour of completing other works. These included several ballets including Cinderella, operas like War and Peace and film music forAlexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible among others. During this period he also composed his ‘war sonatas’, the piano sonatas 6, 7 and 8.
Perhaps the dark nature of this sonata reflected his thoughts about the state of his re-adopted country which had millions incarcerated in the gulags and in which there were daily arrests of people often for little or no reason. Indeed this was the period during which Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase ready for the expected midnight knock on the door from the NKVD. The opening movement is slow and deeply reflective with a gorgeously rich and tuneful theme while the second is faster and agitated. Though the third movement is in effect a lullaby the sombre mood still prevails against another beautiful tune that is both moving and ethereal. Prokofiev then transports us into a completely different world in the last movement with elements of a madcap dance before the return of the “wind on a graveyard” theme with which Prokofiev closes this brilliant sonata. Oistrakh called it “the most beautiful work for violin that has been written for years, here, or anywhere else” - a fully justified description.
While the two sonatas were composed in the Soviet Union the Cinq Mélodies op.35a were written a world away in sunny California in 1920 as a cycle of five songs for Nina Koshetz, an opera singer, one-time lover of Rachmaninov, who sang in the première of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and who taught singing to Marlene Dietrich. Once again Prokofiev’s facility at adaptation is amply demonstrated here. One would never guess they had not been written specifically for violin and piano. Contrasting a feeling of freedom and fine weather with one of homesickness these ‘melodies’ are delightful, delicate and sensitive. While the songs were written for Koshetz, in the versions for violin and piano the second was dedicated to violinist and Medtner champion Cecilia Hansen, wife of a pianist friend and the last one to Josef Szigeti the violinist who had recorded Prokofiev’s first violin concerto.
This is a thoroughly delightful disc of music that shows Prokofiev’s amazing versatility as composer and arranger in three contrasting works. As I said at the beginning, the listener is left with the profound regret that he did not compose more works for these two instruments for which he wrote so convincingly. Isabelle van Keulen, a winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984 is a superbly sensitive player who reveals every nuance in these wonderful works. She is accompanied by one of Holland’s finest musicians Ronald Brautigam who shows himself as a perfect partner. This is a disc of beauty and superb musicianship; a winning combination.
Steve Arloff