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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata No. 2, in D major for Violin and Piano, Op. 94Bis [24:36]
‘Masques’ for Violin and Piano, from Romeo and Juliet (arr. Jascha Heifetz) [2:32]
Sonata in D major for Solo Violin, Op. 115 [12:23]
Sonata No. 1, in F minor, for Violin and Piano, Op. 80 [28:20]
‘March’ for Violin and Piano, from The Love for Three Oranges (arr. Jascha Heifetz) [1:46]
Elsa Grether (violin)
David Lively (piano)
rec. 2018 Flagey Studio 4, Brussels, Belgium
FUGA LIBERA FUG749 [69:37]

The two sonatas for violin and piano on this Fuga Libera CD are both extraordinary works, the F minor outstandingly so. It is a dark, probing and utterly profound piece which stands in stark contrast to its sibling, the upbeat, mostly light D major (No. 2), originally conceived for flute and piano. The Solo Violin Sonata, also in D major, is a somewhat light work as well. The other pieces here, ‘March’ from The Love for Three Oranges and ‘Masques’ from Romeo and Juliet, the work from which this disc gets its curious and rather unnecessary title, are transcriptions by Jascha Heifetz derived from music that appeared in suites the composer made from the source pieces.

French violinist Elsa Grether (b. 1980), a student of Ruggiero Ricci, is relatively new to the international scene, though she has performed at Carnegie Hall and other major concert venues and made three previous recordings for Fuga Libera. She also regularly appears on several French radio programs. American-born, French-based pianist David Lively (b. 1953), prize-winner in several prestigious competitions, studied with Claudio Arrau and has performed with major American and European orchestras. He has also made numerous recordings, many in the chamber realm. So the performers have the credentials and experience necessary to take on this challenging repertory, but they go up against very formidable competition, particularly in the sonatas.

The first thing you notice about their performances here is the strong, almost overwhelming tone of the violin, but then the piano exhibits a powerful presence too. So, while the miking is obviously very close and up front, Grether and Lively choose to play with a rather robust and assertive sense. That said, they do not overlook the more delicate nature of much of the music here, particularly the many introspective and restrained passages in the tortured F minor Sonata. Their performance of it is quite convincing, particularly in the ghostly first movement, with the wind-over-the-graves writing for the violin near the end played very subtly and beautifully by Ms. Grether.

The second movement is driven and powerful, the violin and piano slashing away relentlessly amid the turmoil and conflict. This may be the highlight of their performance of this sonata. The third movement is also very well played, but the middle section, with that bleak three-note motif is taken a bit too briskly: the music is stark here and should have a more moderate though blunt character. The finale opens vigorously and spiritedly, perfectly conveying the deceptive feeling that all will end well, if not in total triumph. The performers then bring out the conflict, struggle and tension as the movement proceeds, finally expressing very convincingly the despair and collapse of the ending, the wind-over-the-graves music returning and soon yielding to hopeless bleakness. An excellent performance then, even if the third movement is slightly flawed.

The Sonata No. 2, in D major, Op. 94bis, the lead-off work here, is given a splendid interpretation. The lyricism and joy of the first movement come on with great spirit and buoyancy, while the ensuing Scherzo brims with energy in its busy drive. The third movement is played beautifully, the sweet and slightly sour main theme phrased so sensitively by Ms. Grether, and the alternate, blues-tinged theme given just the right lilt by both violinist and pianist. The finale exudes joy and triumph in the outer sections, while the lyrical melody in the interior is given a bit more thrust and spirit than is usual. Again, an excellent performance.

Ms. Grether delivers a most convincing account of the Solo Violin Sonata, capturing the character of every movement, from its least emotional tic to the grandest gestures. This three-movement work is mostly sunny and energetic, though the middle panel – a theme and five variations scheme – has a few dark moments. It is not a particularly difficult work to play: Prokofiev originally conceived it to be played in unison by a group of talented violin students. At any rate, this performance of it is quite fine, easily among the best recorded versions.

The two transcriptions are played splendidly, and while they both make marvelous encores or even recital pieces, ‘Masques’ is presented in a version that is not as effective as one made by Prokofiev for solo piano – 5 from Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75. That said, the performers do their finest with this Heifetz arrangement of the music, as well as with the Love for Three Oranges March.
The disc’s sound is well balanced and clear, but as mentioned earlier, quite potent too. That won’t be a problem though, if you don’t mind cutting the volume a bit. As suggested earlier there is much competition in the sonatas on disc: I have fifteen recordings that pair both works, most with fillers. Kremer/Argerich (DG) and Gluzman/Yoffe (BIS) are the better of the crop, which includes Perlman/Ashkenazy (RCA), Mintz/Bronfman (DG) and Oistrakh, whose several recordings feature different pianists and generally not such great sound. This new effort on Fuga Libera falls just a tad short of both the Kremer’s and Gluzman’s efforts, but at least has one advantage over them, offering almost seventy minutes of music and arguably more substantive disc-mates. The Gluzman has three transcriptions from Romeo and Juliet as fillers with a total disc timing of 63:02, and the Kremer offers the Five Melodies for Violin and Piano (which is also a transcription, made in this case by Prokofiev) and has a duration of 64:52. So, we have fine performances from Grether and Lively—though not quite at the level of the very best—and good value for the purchase outlay. Your move.
Robert Cummings

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