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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80 (1938-46) [26:50]
Five Melodies, Op. 35bis (1925) [11:49]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D major, Op. 94bis (1944) [22:04]
Alina Ibragimova (violin); Steven Osborne (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 11-13 July 2013. DDD
HYPERION CDA67514 [60:45]

It seems ironic to me that Hyperion lists the two major works on this disc as “violin sonatas” when Prokofiev was, as a performer, a pianist and composed much important music for that instrument. As with Beethoven, Prokofiev does not in the least slight the piano part in these sonatas. Indeed, they are for “violin and piano,” which I have indicated above; but like Beethoven’s works in the genre, they are usually referred to as violin sonatas.
 
This new recording with Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne demonstrates that the performers have equal roles to play. In fact, throughout both sonatas, but especially the first, the piano frequently dominates the proceedings. Osborne has demonstrated a real affinity for Prokofiev and I was very taken with his recording of the Visions fugitives and Sarcasms that I reviewed here earlier.
 
There have been many fine recordings of the sonatas and several that also contain the Five Melodies. The only work of those on this CD that was originally intended for the violin was the Sonata No. 1 in F minor. The others are transcriptions of the Five Songs without Words composed for Russian mezzo Nina Koshetz in 1920 and the Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1943, respectively. That is not to say that Prokofiev did not write idiomatically for the violin, as witnessed by the works here as well as his two violin concertos and late solo sonata, among other pieces. Although he began the Sonata No. 1 before the one for flute, he laboured over it for eight years off and on. The final product turned out to be one of his most profound creations. It seems that composing the second sonata was an easier task and the result, either for flute or violin, is one of his happiest compositions. He dedicated both sonatas — the second in its violin version — to David Oistrakh, with whom he became friends in the mid-1930s. It was with Oistrakh’s recording with Frida Bauer that I was first introduced to the Sonata No. 1, a powerful performance that became for me the benchmark—although I haven’t heard it for years. Since then, there have been a number of well-received accounts of both sonatas, including the young Perlman and Ashkenazy (RCA), Kremer and Argerich (DG), and Mintz and Bronfman (DG). The last of these has been my favourite until now.
 
Prokofiev was at his best as a lyricist and there is this side of him present in both sonatas — even if the Sonata No. 1 is a darker and even violent work. The team of violinist and pianist has to do justice to both the dramatic and the lyrical here. Kremer and Argerich emphasized the dramatic to a degree where they became rather overbearing, particularly Kremer whose violin tone was at times harsh and strident. Mintz and Bronfman, on the other hand, brought out the lyrical elements in these works and appeared not to slight the dramatic elements either. Theirs is still a valued recording, but I must say that I have been even more impressed with this new one. It’s interesting to note that in every movement of both sonatas Mintz and Bronfman take more time, considerably more in some cases, than Ibragimova and Osborne. Yet, in neither case, does one seem slow or the other rushed. What I find fascinating about Ibragimova and Osborne is the sheer variety of dynamics in their accounts. It ranges from a mere whisper — those eerie violin scalic passages Prokofiev referred to as “like wind in a graveyard” that send chills up the spine in the first and last movements of Sonata No. 1 — to vehemence: the pounding piano chords in the same sonata’s second movement Allegro brusco. There are fewer such instances in the sunnier Sonata No. 2, but even there one finds examples, such as the quiet, “bluesy” section in the middle of the third movement that the duo treat with introspection. At the same time, they can be really boisterous in the second and fourth movements. Overall, they capture the essence of both sonatas better than I can ever remember hearing and bring out all sorts of details that were not as apparent before. Next to them, Mintz and Bronfman, as good as they are, now sound a little plain.
 
In between the sonatas, Hyperion has placed the Five Melodies that serve as an interlude in the programme. They may be miniatures, but they also represent the composer at his lyrical best. Ibragimova conveys the dreaminess of these pieces to perfection. The fourth melody, marked Allegretto leggero e scherzando, breaks the mood a bit, but in its duration of barely a minute captures the very essence of Prokofiev.
 
Hyperion’s engineers have provided very good sound that is not as upfront as that provided for Mintz/Bronfman, but allows a natural perspective and contributes to the dynamic variety I noted earlier. In addition, there is the kind of clarity that makes the listener aware of the intricacy of the writing, a good example being the violin pizzicati and piano staccati in the fourth movement of Sonata No. 1. Hyperion’s production does not disappoint either, with detailed notes by Daniel Jaffé. As of now, this disc will be my first choice for these works.
 
Leslie Wright