Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 18 (1923) [22:55]
Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 (1935) [26:53]
Rudolf Koelman (violin)
Musikkollegium Winterthur/Douglas Boyd
rec. 2016, Townhouse Winterthur, Switzerland
Reviewed in SACD stereo
CHALLENGE RECORDS CC72736 SACD [49:50]
These are marked as live recordings, but you wouldn’t know it from the silent environment from which the sound emerges, and there is no applause at the end of either concerto. With all of the players listed in the booklet, the Musikkollegium Winterthur is quite a substantial orchestra, though the impression is rather more intimate and chamber-music like than you might expect.
The First Violin Concerto was considered old-fashioned by its 1920s Paris audience at the premiere, and while Prokofiev’s signature rhythms, melodic inspiration and sweet’n sour harmonies are well in evidence there is also a low-key subversive quality to go along with its neoclassical, or should that be post-romantic air. The ending of this concerto is quite magical in this recording. The inter-war Second Violin Concerto is alive with contrasts, with a distinctly romantic spirit throughout; hints at poignant reflection centering on the aria-like middle movement, and exploring some connections with folk music in its outer movements. Prokofiev’s orchestration is cleverly colourful and transparent, always allowing the soloist plenty of space for clarity and virtuoso exhibition.
We have a Masterworks Index on Prokofiev’s two Violin Concertos which gives an indication of their popularity and history on records. Of the more recent recordings I’ve found James Ehnes’s collection on the Chandos label pretty hard to beat (review), and his versions are my main reference by way of comparison here. As mentioned before, Musikkollegium Winterthur creates quite a chamber-music perspective, through with good recording quality there is no shortage of bass depth, for instance with the drum in the Second Concerto. The BBC Philharmonic strings are a bit more symphonic in scale, but with Chandos’s up-front balance for the soloist there is never any question of the violinist sinking beyond trace.
As far as choosing a preferred soloist I am once again finding myself without a clear champion. James Ehnes’s expressive tone and accuracy are impeccable, but Rudolf Koelman makes more of seemingly minor features such as those vibrato/slide moments near the beginning of the first movement of the First Concerto, and those solo moments from 2:00 into the last movement of the Second Concerto also have a more ‘parlando’ quality. The edgy, ‘live’ nature of these recordings has more to offer the closer you listen. Vadim Gluzman with Neeme Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is another fine alternative on the BIS label (review), through the soloist tends to pop out too artificially in terms of balance. I want to hear Prokofiev’s orchestration properly, and as the Winterthur forces have been wheeled in a little closer to the violin in this Challenge Classics recording they score a plus in that regard. Gluzman’s punishing of his instrument’s strings around 6 minutes into the first movement of the First Concerto is however characteristic of the greater extremes on offer in this performance, something not reached in the same way by Rudolf Koelman.
Basically, the only thing really missing from this recording of Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos is a filler. If under 50 minutes seems a bit thin for a new CD then I would tend to agree, but on their own terms these performances are very fine indeed. If you already have a favourite version then I suspect you won’t learn very much new from Koelman and Boyd, but as I say, the more you listen the better this gets.