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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No 1 in D major, Op 19 (1916-17) [22:03]
Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 63 (1935) [28:13]
Sonata for Solo Violin in D major, Op 115 (1947) [12:09]
Tianwa Yang (violin), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. 2020, Grosser Sendesaal ORF Funkhaus, Vienna, Austria
NAXOS 8.574107 [62:33]

Chinese violinist Tianwa Yang (b. 1987) made her first recording at just thirteen, Paganini's challenging 24 Caprices, garnering considerable critical acclaim. From 2004 she has recorded for the Naxos label, turning out discs of works by Sarasate, Rihm, Ysa˙e, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and many others. Now she turns to Prokofiev, a composer whose music she says is “close to my heart.” Listening to this recording, it is obvious that Ms. Yang plumbs the depths of Prokofiev for his lyrical and Romantic qualities, delivering accounts of both concertos that tilt toward the spirit of two of the composer's later ballets (Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella), while sometimes down playing his more harsh and sardonic elements.

The First Violin Concerto begins with Ms. Yang playing the main theme with a hushed and delicate tone, but around the eighth note she begins increasing her pp dynamics to a fuller sound, her shift in volume seeming a bit sudden, less gradual than usual. Yet, her phrasing, with ever subtle use of portamento, yields a legato manner that heightens this dreamy theme's soaring beauty. The alternate theme is a bit less playful in Yang's hands than is customary but still has plenty of spirit and drive. The development section has the requisite grit and menace, and the fierce climax comes off quite effectively. The return of the main theme, played by flute with accompaniment from the violin in the upper ranges, is beautifully realized.

The second movement Scherzo has plenty of energy and spirit in its outer sections but the inner passage with the violin playing those dissonant, grating chords, sounds a bit tame. Moreover, when the violin issues those clever screams (1:54-1:59) they lack bite, sounding more like meek chirps. The rest of the movement goes well though and the finale is just fine. In fact this may be one of the best accounts of this movement on record. Yang phrases the main theme beautifully, her tone lush, her tempo expansive. The bouncy theme that follows is well played, exuding joy and playfulness. On its return the main theme is played slowly and phrased with a deft sense to yield its ravishing beauty. The ensuing buildup is again played slower than usual but is mostly effective as it leads dramatically to the return of the first movement main theme. Here the violin glistens in its gossamer delicacy, as Yang's tone shimmers demurely in the ethereal, almost heavenly air. Throughout this concerto Jun Märkl draws fine, highly detailed performances from the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Ms. Yang uses much the same approach in the Prokofiev Second Concerto: tempos tend to be moderate to expansive and lyrical themes are milked to express their full emotional impact. Yet, this time the grittier side of Prokofiev emerges with a good measure of gusto: try the finale where Yang delivers the driving “tumultuoso” coda with a slashing, white-hot virtuosic character. The first movement's opening theme has an appropriately somber manner and Yang's account of the “meno mosso” alternate theme is very lushly and slowly phrased, definitely with “less motion” than the preceding music. The development section has plenty of tension and builds convincingly to bring off Prokofiev's blunt but subtle climax most effectively. The rest of the movement continues at this high artistic level, thus leaving one to conclude that this is one of the most persuasive yet individual accounts of this movement you're likely to encounter. At 11:44 it's the slowest and perhaps most detailed version I've ever encountered.

The second movement, which has an even more post-Romantic lushness, is paced rather moderately by contrast. Again, one finds Ms. Yang's creamy tone quite pleasing in the way she subtly phrases the main theme, a gorgeous melody that once again recalls Romeo and Juliet. As suggested, the finale here is filled with kinetic, spirited playing throughout, brilliantly catching both the folk-like and impudent sides of Prokofiev. Again, Maestro Märkl and the Vienna players turn in fine work, though I must mention that the ritardando at 3:07 to 3:10 in the finale is a bit overdone. The sound reproduction in both concertos is excellent, allowing you to hear much orchestral detail that is usually well in the background in most other recordings.

The solo sonata (originally intended by Prokofiev for a group of violinists playing in unison) also gets a splendid performance from Ms. Yang and features good sound as well. This three-movement work is gaining in popularity of late, maybe in part because it's often chosen on disc as a filler for the two concertos which are widely performed and recorded, but alone offer only fifty minutes or less of music.

As for comparisons, there are many fine CDs containing both concertos including those of Vadim Gluzman (BIS), Arabella Steinbacher (Pentatone), Kyung Wha Chung (Decca), Franziska Pietsch (Audite), Nathan Milstein (EMI), Itzhak Perlman (EMI and Erato), Joshua Bell (Decca) and Tedi Papavrami (Naxos). There are excellent recordings of the First by Szigeti from 1935 (EMI and Pristine Classical) and Mutter (DG), and of the Second by Heifetz from 1937 (RCA and Naxos) and Janine Jansen (Decca); and Maxim Vengerov has recorded both concertos for Teldec but oddly each is coupled with the same numbered concerto by Shostakovich. But to clear the air, if you want both concertos on one disc, Gluzman, Chung, Perlman and Steinbacher would be my first choices among the competition. Yang joins them now as her accounts hold up very well against theirs, and her performances will especially appeal to you if you like expansive renditions of the two Prokofiev concertos.

Robert Cummings

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