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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953)
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 [26:49]
Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Op. 115 [13:44]
Five Melodies Op. 35 Bis [13:42]
From The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33: March (arr. Heifetz) [1:34]
Piano Sonata No. 4 – II. Andante Op. 29bis (arr. orchestra by Prokofiev) [8:29]
Rosanne Philippens (violin)
Julien Quentin (piano)
Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen/Otto Tausk
rec. 2016, Tonhalle, St. Gallen, Switzerland; MCO, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto is certainly one of his most performed works, and violinists like it both for the generous opportunities to show off their technical brilliance and for the lyrical beauty of many passages. But it is also a structurally rather split work with heavy contrasts in tempo, in rhythm, in mood – sometimes jolly, sometimes melancholy. Prokofiev was on a concert tour with Robert Soetens, the violinist who was to premiere the concerto, and he later wrote: “The number of places in which I wrote the Concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid."

In a way the music reflects this multitude of impressions he encountered. The beautiful slow introduction, where the solo violin caresses a tune that could be a Russian folk song, leads over to the kaleidoscopic main movement. The Andante assai second movement with the wandering woodwind accompaniment over which the soloists spins long cantilenas, but she has also a passage with intense high-octane fiddling. After some tumultuous exchanges between orchestra and soloist the music calms down and the final bars are solemnly hymn like. The finale, marked Allegro ben marcato, is probably the movement one remembers best. Rhythmically intense and at times rather grotesque, but it oozes with energy and the castanets, which appear every time the main theme is quoted, lend a Spanish flavour to the music – not inappropriately since the work was to be premiered in Madrid on 1 December 1935. It may be worth mentioning that Soetens continued to champion the work, the last time was the South African premiere in 1972. He was then 72 but he performed in public until he was 95 and reached the Old Testamentary age of 100.

Rosanne Philippens’s playing is totally assured, both technically as well as lyrically beautifully. The support from the Swiss orchestra is fully idiomatic. Philippens’s compatriot Janine Jansen recorded the concerto in 2012, coupling it with different works than on the present disc. Michael Cookson’s review was positive, and so is mine about this newcomer. Just for curiosity I checked the timings for each movement and they were indeed unanimous. See below, and compare with Jascha Heifetz’s two recordings.

  Philippens Jansen Heifetz
I 10:45 10:51 9:26 9:02
II 9:40 9:46 8:09 8:00
III 6:24 6:23 6:21 6:11

Heifetz’s recording with Koussevitzky, made in 1937, was the first recording of the work. His remake with Munch was an early LP, marginally quicker. The difference between Heifetz and Jansen/Philippens in the first two movements is distinct, while all three (four) are only seconds apart in the finale.

The year after the violin concerto was completed Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union with his family. He had some successes but was also, like so many of his colleagues, accused of anti-democratic formalism through the "Zhdanov Decree" in 1948. The sonata for solo violin, written the year before, can hardly have been the reason for the accusation. The first movement nods repeatedly at Bach, nothing anti-democratic in that; the Andante dolce is very beautiful and the opening of the reptile-quick third movement is played with tongue-in-cheek. The last flourish is breath-taking.

The Five Melodies Op. 35bis were originally songs written for mezzo-soprano Nina Koshetz in the early 1920s. When in California in 1925 he went to a recital with Hungarian violinist József Szigeti and was inspired to adapt the songs for the violin. In the first two the violin sings with beautiful legato, but also the powerful and initially quite noisy third melody leaves room for cantilenas. The short allegretto whistles by like a mild western wind, while the finale, after a wrestling match with the piano ends on a soft note.

The famous march from the opera The Love for Three Oranges from 1919 was arranged three years later by Jascha Heifetz and has since then been a popular encore. It’s vital and tough and Rosanne Philippens plays it lustrously.

It should have been the natural full stop for this programme, but it is followed by a relative rarity: Prokofiev’s own orchestration of the second movement from his fourth piano sonata. The sonata was composed in 1917, just before he left the country. Obviously he was very fond of it and recorded it in the early 1930s and made the orchestration in 1934. The colours are dark and diffusely threatening. A kind of magic mystery tour – quite fascinating. It is well played by the St Gallen Orchestra under its chief conductor since 2012, the young Dutchman Otto Tausk. The recording, made in the Tonhalle, St Gallen is good and if the coupling is to your taste it is definitely worth the investment.

Göran Forsling



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