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Sergey PROKOFIEV ( 1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 19 (1914) [21:57]
Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56 (1932) [14:24]
Sonata for Violin Solo, Op. 115 (1947) [12:46]
Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 (1935) [26:23]
Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80 (1938) [26:58]
Five Melodies, Op. 35bis (1925) [13:28]
Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 94bis (1944) [24:21]
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]

Enterprising as ever, Chandos has released a double set containing all the works that Prokofiev wrote for the violin as a solo instrument. Canadian violinist James Ehnes is centre-stage with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under their former chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda (now conductor laureate).
Over my years of reporting for ‘Seen and Heard International’ I have attended a considerable number of BBC Philharmonic concerts conducted by Noseda at Manchester’s Bridgwater Hall and also several with Ehnes, a regular visitor there. Although I would describe Noseda and Ehnes as having a very different stage presence they are similar in that they are both musicians of genuine integrity who perform right from the heart.
The Violin Concerto No. 1 is a relatively early work composed in 1916/17, a highly productive time for the composer, with sketches for the opening movement made earlier in 1915. It was one of the last works to be written before Prokofiev left Russia. Prokofiev chooses not to exploit the virtuosic qualities of the violin with soloist and orchestra being more like equal partners. Nevertheless it is a quite excellent score that I would like to see programmed far more regularly. In the fascinating opening Andantino it is not difficult to imagine an icy Russian chill with Ehnes creating a hauntingly tense atmosphere. The fiery Scherzo is vibrantly played with the wonderful contemporary writing and mischievous sounding effects expertly negotiated. In the Finale Ehnes strikes a nice balance between mystery and introspection with the assured Noseda directing his players in an explosion of passionate lyricism in the marvellous big tune at 2:05. 

Prokofiev wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 around the time he was working on his Romeo and Juliet. In truth the work tends to be overshadowed by the earlier D major Concerto. Prokofiev’s writing is highly melodic although more contemplative than the earlier work and containing little in the way of virtuosic display. I reported from the Bridgwater Hall concert when Ehnes gave a fine if not outstanding performance of this score with the same forces in February 2013. Looking at the dates I suspect that Ehnes and the BBC Phil went into the Salford Quays studio the next day to make this recording. In the opening Allegro moderato one immediately notices the lighter scoring than in its D major predecessor. Ehnes maintains his strong form throughout the long and varied melodic line establishing a rather dreamy mood with some lush and delightfully warm colours. In the absorbing central Andante there’s a cool rather isolated feel to the solo line against the sparse pizzicato accompaniment. Rhythmic, dance-like and somewhat satirical the violin stands out prominently in the Finale against extremely spare instrumental scoring. Evident throughout is a serious, rather gloomy undertow to the writing. In this outstanding interpretation the congenially elegant approach from Ehnes is compelling, complemented by the insightful support from Noseda and his BBC Philharmonic players.
These striking performances of the violin concertos are certainly on the same elevated level as my two main recommendations: the 2012 Moscow accounts from Arabella Steinbacher and the Russian National Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko on Pentatone Classics and the now ‘classic’ 1975 Kingsway Hall, London from soloist Kyung-Wha Chung and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under André Previn on Decca (c/w Stravinsky Violin Concerto). 

The first chamber work on the set is the four movement Sonata for two violins where Ehnes is joined by Amy Schwartz Moretti. I don’t see the work appearing too often on recital programmes although it’s accessible enough. It stands away from the acerbic style of many of Prokofiev’s works from this period. In the short opening Andante cantabile Ehnes and Morettiensure a yearning quality but it’s not a tragic or grief-stricken one. There is some energetic interplay in the virtuosic Allegro which is full of restless vibrant writing. Marked Commodo (quasi allegretto) the gentle lyricism of the third movement is profoundly sorrowful as if grieving for a loved one. The conversation between Ehnes and Morettiin the Allegro con brio:Finale is a pulsating and animated one conveying a slightly dark, unwelcoming character. I enjoyed the two gypsy-like dance episodes at points 1:59-2:54 and 4:32-5:05. Much as I have enjoyed this account of the Sonata for Two Violins I would not want to be without the admirably played 2009 Prague recording from Veronika Jarůšková and Eva Karová - of the Pavel Haas Quartet - on Supraphon. 

The score to the enigmatic Sonata for Violin Solo dates from 1947 - an extremely difficult time when Prokofiev was the target of much damaging criticism by the Soviet authorities. Although I have not warmed to the work I certainly prefer this solo violin version compared to the original scoring for unison violins especially with playing as pleasing as this. A mix of yearning melody and brash virtuosity, the reasonably appealing opening Moderato reminds me of a virtuosic encore. It’s played with Ehnes’ accustomed self-assurance. Used as the basis for the five variations, the calming theme Prokofiev uses is simple and rustic in character. So sure-footed in the Finale Ehnes makes light work of the bold and somewhat extrovert demands. I have admired the 2012 Concertboerderij Valthermond account of this Sonataby Arabella Steinbacher on Pentatone, however, I find the present performance equally satisfying.
In the chamber works for violin and piano Ehnes is joined by pianist Andrew Armstrong, with whom he has made a number of much-admired Chandos CDs. One of my favourite chamber works is the Violin Sonata No. 1, a truly great Russian score. This dark and intense four movement score proves to be a fairly popular choice with chamber musicians and I have certainly heard it several times in recital. The dark rather dense Sonata No. 1 was commenced in 1938 before the Sonata No. 2. It was then put aside until it was completed two years later. A bleak, shadowy character imbues the opening Andante assai and at point 4:41 the “wind in the graveyard” effect that usually sends a shiver down the spine is relatively subdued. Vibrant playing from Ehnes and Armstrong in the tense and angry writing of the Allegro brusco has a rebellious and rather sinuous quality. In the Andante Jansen’s muted violin exudes a dreamy tenderness on the surface but reveals an undercurrent of foreboding with a rather curious dissociated feel. Vigorously bold and angrily forceful, the Finale mainly gushes with an almost incessant torrent of music. At point 5:21 the chilling “wind in the graveyard” effect appears once again; if seeming a touch repressed. 

Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 from 1943/44 with its formal classical design was in fact adapted from his Flute Sonata, Op 94. In the splendid opening Moderato Ehnes and Armstrong seem perfectly at one with the highly memorable bitter-sweet melodies. Frenetic and bold the Scherzo in triple-time is followed by the gentle and appealing pastoral writing of the Andante in which the duo reveal a light undercurrent of melancholy. In the Finale a stompingly jaunty Sonata-Rondo feels a touch mechanical and I was left wondering what political point the composer was trying to make. 

The charming songful Five Melodies for violin and piano was adapted from a work for Five Songs without words for voice and piano, Op. 35 from five years earlier. The opening Andante is a dour, serious affair while the contrasting mood of the second piece Lento ma non troppo is all dreamy peace. Strident with moments of endearing calm, the middle movement Animato - ma non allegro is followed by very brief, summery and easy going Allegretto leggero e scherzando. Marked Andante non troppo the highly agreeable final Melody features a lovely theme with an impertinent central section.
My first choice accounts in both the F minor and D major Sonatas isfrom Shlomo Mintz and Yefim Bronfman - a true meeting of minds. They were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1987 in Cologne. In addition I should mention the wonderfully vibrant accounts from Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich recorded in 1991 at Brussels on Deutsche Grammophon. This also includes the 5 Melodies.
I found the excellent sound quality of the concertos from the BBC Studios at MediaCityUK vividly clear and splendidly balanced. From Potton Hall the chamber works are agreeably if not strikingly recorded.
This is an outstanding Chandos set from James Ehnes of Prokofiev’s complete works for violin. It includes quite stunning performances of the two violin concertos.
Michael Cookson
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev violin concertos