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Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Chamber music forms a modest but significant component in the output of Sergey Prokofiev. As well as two String Quartets, a Sonata and a Ballade for cello and piano, a Sonata for Two Violins and a Wind Quintet, there are the works for violin and piano featured here. Both of the sonatas were inspired by the artistry of David Oistrakh (1907-74), who, along with the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, was the pre-eminent champion of contemporary music in the Soviet era.
The First Violin Sonata had its beginnings as far back as 1938, while Prokofiev was finishing work on his score for Eisensteins film Alexander Nevsky. Despite the encouragement of Oistrakh, the work was not completed until 1946. First performed on 23rd October that year, its brooding intensity and often explosive emotional contrasts must have come as a shock after the celebratory optimism of the works that preceded it. Yet along with the equally powerful Sixth Symphony, completed in 1947, the sonata can be regarded as Prokofievs most convincing attempt to reconcile his rhapsodic melodic thinking with the demands of large-scale abstract form. The Andante assai opens with moody piano chords and hollow violin trills. A brief climax is reached, before the central section, a haunting theme in close harmony for both instruments. The piano recalls the first idea, over which the violin has slithering arabesques and fugitive pizzicati, leading to an uncertain close. The Allegro brusco sets off with incisive violin gestures over pounding piano accompaniment. A more sustained and lyrical theme duly provides contrast, and both ideas are freely developed then heard in reverse order, before the curt final gesture. The Andante begins with a magical ostinato pattern on the piano, over which the muted violin spins a melody of wistful melancholy. The music grows more pensive, then the initial theme is resumed, leading to a spare coda. The Allegrissimo finale opens with a decisive theme shared between the players, complemented by a more restrained idea. The initial theme is vigorously elaborated, presaging the heightened recall of its successor. A falling away of activity marks the return of the first movements main theme, bringing the work to a quiet and resigned conclusion.
It was during 1942, while at work on the score for Eisensteins epic Ivan the Terrible, that Prokofiev wrote his Flute Sonata, ostensibly as a relaxation and as an escape from the traumas of war. The works effective contrasts of lyricism and virtuosity attracted the attention of Oistrakh, who, no doubt wondering if the sonata promised to him some years earlier would ever materialise, encouraged the composer to transcribe it for violin. This version, published as the Second Violin Sonata, was a great success at its première in June 1944, and has overshadowed the flute original ever since. The opening Moderato features a limpid but capricious theme, with harmonic slide-slips typical of Prokofiev, and a folk-like secondary idea. This first section is repeated, then the violin brusquely launches a development of the main theme. A subtly varied reprise follows, then a poetic coda. The Scherzo is an effervescent Presto, its hectic, perpetuum mobile complemented by a robustly melodic theme. An unexpectedly inward central section does service as a trio, before the activity resumes unabated. The Andante is effectively a song without words which never strays far from its themes calm directness and poise. This sets up a purposeful contrast with the Allegro con brio finale, whose thrusting main idea is followed by a more angular melody. These are duly alternated and extended, including a surprisingly withdrawn recall of the second theme, before the final return of the main idea leads to a lengthy and rhetorical conclusion.
The Solo Violin Sonata has its origin in a competition at the Moscow Conservatory during 1948, when Prokofiev heard twenty students playing Bachs Third Partita in perfect synchronization. This led him to write a work playable either by one violinist, or by several in unison. In keeping with the music that inspired it, the sonata is shorter and more neo-classical in design than those with piano, its three sections comprising one large, ternary form. The initial Moderato section unobtrusively combines robust, Bachian figuration with insinuating melodic elegance. There follow three variations on an Andante dolce theme of artless simplicity. In the final section, a suave Con brio twice contrasts with a vigorous Allegro precipitato that sees the work through to its decisive ending.
Of Prokofievs numerous song-cycles, none is more individual than the Five Songs without Words, composed in December 1920. The example of Rachmaninovs Vocalise, the last of his Fourteen Songs, Op. 34, may have inspired the pairing of wordless soprano with piano, though the composer soon realised that difficulties in intonation and co-ordination made frequent performance unlikely. In 1928, Prokofiev revised the work for violin and piano as Five Melodies, Op.35bis, in which form it has attained some popularity. No. 1 has a touch of agitation to enliven its expressive profile. No. 2 features a ruminative theme similar to those found in Prokofievs violin concertos, and with a quiet but animated central section. No. 3 is more vibrantly emotional, this time with a central section of rapt melodic poise. No. 4 has an attractively whimsical feel, curiously redolent of Delius. No. 5 rounds off the set with a calmly unfolding melody, an impulsive central section presaging the themes return in ethereal harmonics.
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Violin Recital: Andrey Bielov