Following on from her thrilling recording of the Shostakovich Violin Concertos in 2012 on the French Mirare Label, Sayaka Shoji now turns her attention to that other great Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev.
Born in Japan, Shoji spent her childhood in Siena, Italy. She studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Her teachers have included big names, such as Shlomo Mintz and Uto Ughi. In 1999, she became the first Japanese and youngest winner of the Paganini Competition in Genoa. A year later she made her debut CD with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta playing, amongst other things, the Paganini First Violin Concerto. Since then she has amassed a pretty fine discography on DG and Mirare, including Bach and Reger, the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Concertos and Prokofiev’s Violin Sonatas with Itamar Golan, one of her regular partners. The recording here is her first recording collaboration with the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov who, we are told, is her mentor and supporter.
Prokofiev’s First Concerto started life as a ‘concertino’ in 1915, and was then put on hold for completion of his opera ‘The Gambler’. It was finally completed in 1917 for the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski who had advised the composer on technical matters. It is set in the traditional three movement plan with, unusually, the fast movement being in the middle. However, historical events intervened and the Bolshevik Revolution delayed the premiere until 1923. This was given by the violinist Marcel Darieux, leader of the Paris Opera Orchestra, in a concert under Serge Koussevitsky. The concerto was later championed by Josef Szigeti and subsequently by David Oistrakh.
His second concerto in G minor, again in three movements, was composed in 1935. It was the result of a commission by the French violinist Robert Soetens, who gave the first performance of the work in Madrid in December of that year. Heifetz later took this work into his repertoire and made it popular.
The beautiful theme which begins the opening movement of the First Concerto, sets the scene for what is to follow. This is a spacious reading, nicely paced and with a youthful freshness and spontaneity. Shoji’s Recamier Strad of 1729 has a full rich tone, and her technical brilliance enables her to negotiate the many difficulties which confront the performer along the way. Her vibrato allows her a kaleidoscopic range of colour - a prerequisite for a score of this kind, with its myriad shadings. She possesses a tonal opulence well-suited to a canvas such as this. Temirkanov is, all the while, a sympathetic partner. Each subsequent listening emphasized the feeling that the music was being created on the wing. The Scherzo is energetic and extrovert. It is well-articulated, spiky, quixotic and mercurial. There is an infectious wit and verve about this and the violinist displays both fantasy and imagination. The finale is rhapsodic and passionate, with double-stops distinguished by immaculate intonation.
The Second Concerto is cast in a more romantic mould. It is darker, and melancholy, a sense of yearning and pathos imbue the score. Orchestrally it is more sparsely textured than Op. 19. The violin enters with a plaintive melody which Shoji etches with true Russian flavour. There’s a haunting quality to the whole proceedings. The ‘big tune’ is expressive, eloquent and ravishing in its intensity. The Andante is taken at a comfortable tempo, with Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg players sustaining a buoyant accompaniment to Shoji’s narrative. The third movement is jaunty, with double-stops that bristle with excitement. The castanets, which augment the percussion, ring out in a vivid display. The work is a masterstroke of scoring.
These are two electrifying performances in stunning sound quality. The DG engineers have worked wonders with the warm ambience of the acoustic of the St. Petersburg Grand Hall. Balance between soloist and orchestra is ideal. Orchestral detail emerges with clarity and definition. These are well-argued performances which set the bar high. I wouldn’t hesitate to place them alongside my favourite versions, which include Oistrakh, Perlman and Kyung-Wha Chung. Programme notes are in Japanese only, but a profile of the soloist, conductor and orchestra is in English.
Truly memorable performances. Pure magic.
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev violin concertos