Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No.1 [23.10]
Carl August NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Violin Concerto [38.24]
Liya Petrova (violin)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Kristiina Poska
rec. 2017, Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100086 [61.48]
Liya Petrova won the 2016 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition which made this disc of Nielsen's only Violin concerto inevitable. It is quite some years since this piece was so rare in the recorded catalogue that one had to search hard to find anything. Today one can choose from something like thirty or forty recordings including some by the top celebrity names. I have eight recordings in my own collection alone. That being so, Liya Petrova has to justify recommendation. The first point in her favour is the gorgeous sound she produces. This really is the most beautiful playing, matched with considerable power and apparently limitless technique. This last also coming to her aide in Prokofiev's much more famous First Concerto.
Nielsen wrote his concerto in 1911 and it was first performed by the composer's friend Peder M°ller, then leader of the Royal Danish Orchestra. It had some success at the time and has never been out of the repertoire in Denmark, but internationally it did not establish itself till quite recently. Even the great Nielsen scholar and supporter Robert Simpson damned it with faint praise in his 1952 study when he declared it the least significant of the composer's three concertos. Admittedly he was comparing it with two of the greatest concertos ever written, those for flute and clarinet, so perhaps one can see what he means. The Violin Concerto does not set out to be one of those great flamboyant crowd-pleasing affairs such as the Tchaikovsky or a profound masterpiece like those of Brahms and Beethoven. But the Nielsen is a muscular composition full of energy and some good tunes evenly distributed through its two bi-partite movements, each starting with a slow introduction. Since first hearing the work in the 1960s I have failed to understand its comparative neglect in our concert halls. Interestingly, I do not remember hearing a performance of it, on disc or live, that ever failed to satisfy. This present recording is no exception. If I may be permitted a brief comparison, I had to hand Baiba Skride's recent version with the Tampere orchestra. She displays more willingness to indulge in dynamic extremes and her orchestra is more clearly recorded than the Odense Symphony on Petrova's disc, but again, I could live happily with either.
Prokofiev's work is more normal in that it does represent the two key characteristics of its composer in the 1910s, lyricism and spikey virtuosity. The great virtuoso Szigeti was drawn, says the note, to its "mixture of fairy-tale naivetÚ and daring savagery" and he went on to bring the work international fame. Petrova is fully up to the savage and lyrical demands whilst still sounding remarkably beautiful.
I have a soft spot for the Odense Symphony, having spent time taking sommerhus holidays on Funen, and know how good they and their concert hall are from firsthand experience. Their recorded sound here does not do them justice. It is definitely not the fault of the conductor Kristiina Poska, who clearly has both concertos well under control and encourages the orchestra to match the soloist's trenchancy and energy. Nonetheless I find the recorded sound of these fine players slightly foggy, particularly compared to the Tampere orchestra. However, the Tampere set is two discs and different repertoire apart from the Nielsen, so we are not comparing like with like. The Odense orchestra has the Nielsen in their blood. They must play more of it than most orchestras, being right in the middle of home territory, in a hall bearing his name and right next door to the best Nielsen archive there is. The complex lines of, especially, the wind players are superbly done. Maybe some injudicious multiplication of microphones has worked against clarity.
If the coupling of the Nielsen and Prokofiev appeals then you are in for a rare pleasure with Liya Petrova's lovely playing. She obviously deserved her win in that competition and her busy schedule of concerts across Europe playing all the standard, and some of the not-so-standard works, reflects a career on the rise.