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Norman Lebrecht’s Album of the Week – Prokofiev Violin Concertos

By (September 16, 2016) No Comment

bis-2142Prokofiev: Violin concertos

**** (4 of 5)

Two albums of Prokofiev concertos arrive in the same delivery, one piano, the other violin. Both are from pedigree artists, pedigree labels. Which one do I review?

Here’s where you run into the problem of having too much music in your head. I cannot listen to the 4th and 5th Prokofiev concertos, or the 7th and 8th sonatas, without hearing Sviatoslav Richter as a parallel soundtrack, allowing others little room for manoeuvre. Likewise the 3rd concerto which I heard Martha Argerich play with Riccardo Muti one Sunday afternoon more than 40 years ago with such effervescence that all else pales beside it. So forget the piano concertos.

The two violin concertos are less of a problem. David Oistrakh left his mark on them, of course, but so did Heifetz, Milstein, Szigeti and Midori, all very different in temperament and interpretation, leaving the score open for further exploration. Vadim Gluzman, a Soviet-raised Israeli, works his own way intriguingly into the conversation.

In the first concerto, written just before the Bolshevik revolution and premiered in Paris six years later, there is an unmistakable current of anarchy and mayhem. Gluzman plays dangerously close to the edge of possibility, as if daring the orchestra to stray with him into an alternative tonality. In the second concerto, premiered in 1935, the soloist is lyrically ingratiating, the composer almost bending over backwards in his need to please Stalin. The contrasts made by Gluzman between the two concertos are apt and extreme. Neeme Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, slightly bashful in the background. It feels, for once, as if everyone is reliving their Soviet history.

A bonus track of the violin sonata, opus 115, is a perplexing rarity. Prokofiev wrote it as a whispering conversation for two violins. Reduced to one fiddle it becomes a neurotic monologue, the late mutterings of a famous musician driven half-mad by tyranny, clinging to beauty as a lifebelt.

Norman Lebrecht has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc, writes a monthly essay for Standpoint magazine and is writing two more books.

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