SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

PROKOFIEV: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Sonata for Solo Violin – Arabella Steinbacher, v./ Russian Nat. Orch./ Vasily Petrenko – PentaTone

Fireworks galore in this recording of Prokofiev’s popular violin concerti.

Published on December 14, 2012

PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19; Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63; Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Op. 115 –  Arabella Steinbacher, v./ Russian Nat. Orch./ Vasily Petrenko – PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 395 [Distr. by Naxos], 64:27 ****:

Though separated by nearly twenty years, Prokofiev’s two violin concertos are very similar in their prevailing lyricism, melodic charm, and occasional wistfulness, even dreaminess. There’s Prokofiev’s patented brand of spiky brilliance in both as well, and even a touch of what Joseph Szigeti, an early champion of the First Concerto, called “daring savagery.” That we would expect from the composer of the opera The Fiery Angel and its spinoff, the Third Symphony. But there is far less of the barbed angularity found in Prokofiev’s piano concertos—strange in the case of the Violin Concerto No. 1, written when Prokofiev was still very much in his enfant terrible phase. Which just proves how much Prokofiev was his own man, tacking one way and then quickly changing course in his compositional voyage.

Musical Paris obviously expected a different work from Prokofiev when it was premiered there in 1923, composer Georges Auric even labeling it “Mendelssohnian”—quite a dig, but Prokofiev was unfazed by the critical reaction. He was right, of course; now the work is a great repertory staple. This is so despite the fact that it really isn’t a virtuoso vehicle. With its two prevailingly slow outer movements, it rather establishes its staying power based on its convincingly sustained emotional states and the inventive development of memorable melodic materials. One masterstroke of Prokofiev’s was to include a prominent part for the tuba in both the second movement scherzo—where it’s weighty observations are surprisingly seconded by a jangling tambourine—and finale, where it leads a slow march to the final cadence.

Written in 1935, the Second Concerto shows the influence of Prokofiev’s recently completed Romeo and Juliet ballet. There’s a balletic quality to the music throughout, dreamily so in the first movement, while the finale (marked Allegro ben marcato) dances more jauntily. The melodies are long-breathed and as immediately appealing as those in Romeo and Juliet. Critics concede that part of the explanation for this new-found lyrical persona was Prokofiev’s wish to establish his bona fides with the Soviet authorities as he sought to return to his native land: no longer the enfant terrible but a Soviet artist genuinely bent on pursuing social realism in music. We know how that turned out—early acceptance and then constant searches for the right formula that would bring him continued accolades, his last years hounded by illness and ever-shrinking artistic freedom.

At any rate, Prokofiev is that rarity among composers, having two violin concertos at the center of the repertoire. Again, melodic memorability and inventiveness are the keys to its success—for example, in the finale, the way the violin dances a Russian flamenco to the clack of castanets!

Like Kabalevsky and other Soviet composers, Prokofiev increasingly turned his attention to creating works for younger musicians and listeners. The result was pieces such as Winter Bonfire for boys’ choir and orchestra and the light-on-its-feet (some would say lightweight) Seventh Symphony, as well as the Sonata for Solo Violin. It’s interesting to learn that Prokofiev expected it to be played by an ensemble of young violinists playing in unison. Lots of luck; maybe a group of young Midoris could have handled the intricacies of the first movement and especially the finale, with its numerous trills and double stops. At any rate, the piece is not often heard either in concert or on disc, so it’s a decided bonus here, especially played with such bright-eyed enthusiasm as Arabella Steinbacher musters for the work.

Her performance of the violin concertos is equally spirited and on-point; she really flashes through the scherzo of the First Concerto and perfectly captures that wistful reflectiveness that graces both concerti. Though he’s gotten a lot of good press for his Shostakovich symphony series on Naxos, this is the first encounter I’ve had with conductor Vasily Petrenko. He certainly convinces in this go at Prokofiev’s lean but colorful orchestration and gets excellent responsiveness from the Russian National Orchestra.

PentaTone serves up a recording typical of its work with this orchestra: the perspective is thrillingly close-up, presenting bigger-than-life sound and transients that sizzle but are very much in-your-face. (Prepare yourself for that bass drum!) It’s very exciting, though the closeness is a bit less flattering to the soloist. As I recall, this was true as well of Maxim Vengerov and Mstislav Rostropovich’s first-rate performances on Teldec. For a more natural perspective (and more relaxed and dulcet playing by the soloist), consider Joshua Bell and Charles Dutoit on Decca; just don’t expect the same kind of orchestral fireworks we have on the current PentaTone disc. All things considered, there are enough thrills from Steinbacher, Petrenko, and the engineers to make this a very recommendable recording, especially for those with SACD-playback capabilities.

—Lee Passarella




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