Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 19 (1914) [21:57]
Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 (1935) [26:23]
Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56 (1932) [14:24]
Sonata for Violin Solo, Op. 115 (1947) [12:46]
Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80 (1938) [26:58]
Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 94bis (1944) [24:21]
Five Melodies, Op. 35bis (1925) [13:28]
James Ehnes (violin)
Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin) (Op. 56), Andrew Armstrong (piano) (Op. 80, 35bis, 96bis); BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 28 June 2012, 23 February 2013 BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, Salford, UK (concertos); 20-22 June 2012, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK (other works)
CHANDOS CHAN 10787(2) [76:03 + 65:09]
Michael Cookson has already reviewed this release on these pages, and I am happy to concur with his summary of it as ‘outstanding’. Chandos have done well with this Complete Works for Violin programme, the concertos occasionally paired with the solo and chamber works but rarely if ever in such a comprehensive way.
There is no shortage of these two violin concertos in the catalogues, and those really interested in the history of the works will not want to be without David Oistrakh on the EMI label (see review). This recording wears its age respectably, and while its mono sound can’t compete with today’s digital refinement the sheer soul and expression in Oistrakh’s playing is hard to beat in any century. His timings are almost identical in the first two movements of the First Violin Concerto, only the ‘tick-tock’ of Ehnes and Noseda’s last movement taking it to nearly a minute longer, losing a little in intensity but gaining poise by return. Listening back to Oistrakh reminds one of the sheer power of expression he delivers in the simplest of lines, such as the Andante assai of the Second Violin Concerto. Ehnes is his own man here however, creating a sweeter tone and relishing the purity of the highest notes from his Stradivarius instrument.
Remaining with the concertos, Arabella Steinbacher is good, and the Pentatone SACD recording is very fine, but I differ a little from Michael Cookson’s review in being less keen on her occasionally somewhat slow vibrato, and the lack of intensity in slower tempos for instance in the first movement of the First Concerto, the Russian musicians also less on top of the notes and as ‘on fire’ as the BBC Philharmonic, who never miss a step. Catch the sour intonation of the clarinet entry at 1:11 of the second movement of the First Concerto and you’ll get what I mean. Pavel Berman on the Dynamic label (see review) is placed at a more distant recorded balance than many in these concertos, and while I complain more often about soloists being up too close and scaring off entire orchestras this no doubt contributes to the rather soggy and ‘rather generalised’ feel. A more potential giant-killer can be found in Tedi Papavrami on Naxos 8.553494. He and Antoni Wit maintain a great degree of excitement and sustained expressiveness, and this is a recording, coupled with a very fine Solo Sonata Op. 115, which encourages and rewards growing affection.
Enough comparisons for now; suffice to say that there is a multitude of very fine recordings of the concertos and most of the other works in this collection. The bottom line is that you won’t want to miss James Ehnes’s one-stop Prokofiev collection. Ehnes contrasts the solo lines with a driving strength which at times seems to lead the orchestra with as much character as Noseda. His beauty of tone has already been mentioned, and these are performances with float above the orchestra, integrating musically but not digging in with as many lower fundamentals as Oistrakh. There is nothing feminine about the gritty lower passages in the first concerto’s Scherzo however, and the upward glissandi at 1:55 take us straight into ‘Psycho’ territory. You’ll only notice the more measured pace of the final Moderato in this concerto if you are pre-programmed with Oistrakh’s version, and it has plenty of that nervy, spiky edge Prokofiev creates underneath those sublime melodies and sustained harmonic progressions. The Second Violin Concerto is less frequently performed than the first, and if you know the extremely fine version with Maxim Vengerov on the Telarc/Elatus label (see review) then you will probably still be wondering why this is the case. Vengerov and Rostropvich nail the Russian-ness of this work, with playful wit always grounded in soulfulness and irony. Ehnes and Noseda are a little more urbane with the work, Prokofiev’s shining bells and whirling Cossacks all very much present, but without treading bloodstains and mud into the ambassador’s carpet.
The recording of the Sonata Op. 56 I’ve had for donkey’s years is that from Hyperion, CDA 66473 with Krysia Osostowicz and Ernst Kovacic. James Ehnes with Amy Schwartz Moretti are dry and edgy, more so than I remember from the Hyperion recording, but with such style and character that the music is kept vibrant and alive from beginning to end. The two instruments are well matched as they should be, but with a distinctiveness of character which keeps the conversational chamber music nature of the piece intact. The Sonata for Violin Solo, Op. 115 was Prokofiev’s last work for violin, but still full of nervy intensity and a sense of joy in the outer movements expressed highly effectively by James Ehnes. There is also fun to be had with the variations in the central movement, though the feeling of nostalgia or regret is never entirely absent, something to which Ehnes is eminently sensitive.
The second disc of this superb set has both of the Sonatas for Violin and Piano and the Five Melodies Op. 35bis. Only the Op. 80 sonata is originally for violin, the second sonata having been raided from the flute/piano repertoire, Op. 35 being originally for voice and piano. These are all excellent performances in their own right, and no-one will be disappointed by Andrew Armstrong’s powerful pianism or James Ehnes’s eloquent performances. For me however this recording was somewhat blown out of the water by an alternative from the BIS label (BIS-SACD-2032) with Vadim Gluzman and Angela Yoffe. Having heard this and compared it with the Chandos recording I’m afraid I’m doomed to having to keep both: the Chandos for the excellent concertos, the BIS for the remarkable sonatas. Taking Ehnes and Armstrong at face value I can hear at every point how I would have extolled their virtues, and if you’ve already heard the Chandos recording you might wonder what all the fuss is about. If the sonatas are however your priority, do yourself a favour and check out that BIS release, you won’t regret it, unless you’ve invested in Chandos already.
Booklet notes by David Nice are fulsome and perfect for this release. All in all this is a superb package, and highly desirable on every level. Seeking beyond Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto you will find there are worlds you may not have expected, and the musicians in these recordings are as good a guide as you could wish for.
Previous review: Michael
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev violin concertos