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CLASSICAL  July 2008

CLASSICAL July 2008

Subject:

Shaham plays Prokofiev

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 2 Jul 2008 14:54:45 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (116 lines)

Sergei Prokofiev
Music for Violin

*  March, op. 12/1 (arr. Heifetz)
*  Sonata No. 1 in f for violin and piano, op. 80
*  Romeo and Juliet: "Masks"
*  5 Melodies, op. 35
*  The Love of Three Oranges: March (arr. Heifetz)
*  Sonata No. 2 in D for violin and piano, op. 94

Gil Shaham, violin
Orli Shaham, piano
Canary Classics CC02  Total time: 72:45

Summary for the Busy Executive: Beyond wonderful.

We have here all the music Prokofiev wrote for violin and piano, plus
a few lollipops transcribed by Jascha Heifetz.  About the only original
fiddle chamber work missing is the sonata for two violins, a major score
which the liner notes try to dismiss as "not popular," an excuse for not
including it.  If they had said that the piece wouldn't have fit on the
disc or that Shaham decided not to overdub, I suspect it would have been
more honest.

The three big works on the program are the two violin sonatas and the
5 Melodies.  The Melodies, although brief, stand among the most lyrical
music of the twentieth century, and it should surprise nobody that they
began life as vocalises.  Prokofiev, after the Paris success of his first
violin concerto, decided to reward the violinist with another piece and
reworked the score.  The resemblance of the first of the melodies to
Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" has always struck me as an instance
of two great minds thinking along similar lines.  Wistful, ardent,
good-humored, and yearning by turns, these gems show that song was always
an important part of Prokofiev's music, even during his "barbaric" period
and well before his highly-publicized return to the Soviet Union.

In the Forties, Prokofiev composed his flute sonata.  He had begun a
violin sonata in the late Thirties for David Oistrakh, but the press
of other commitments (and, unusually for him, he was stuck) delayed its
completion.  Oistrakh lost patience waiting and at the same time recognized
that the flute sonata could be worked into something for violin.  With
Oistrakh's help and reminiscent of Baroque practice, Prokofiev arranged
the flute sonata for violin and piano as the "second" violin sonata.  So
the second sonata was written before the first.  As such, it has become
way more entrenched in the repertory than its flute cousin, as a quick
check of ArkivMusic will tell you, probably because there are more star
violinists than flutists.  Luckily, Prokofiev got two masterpieces out
of one score.  I prefer its violin incarnation.  I've heard top-flight
flutists in the sonata -- Rampal, Galway, Pahud -- and they don't really
generate the same energy as a mediocre violinist, let alone a great one.

The first movement begins with Prokofiev in his pastoral, near-Peter
and the Wolf, vein, with vertiginous shifts into the depths of the Fifth
Symphony, written around the same time.  The second movement, a fleet
scherzo with a simple and affecting trio, also resembles the corresponding
movement in the symphony.  The usual word for this vein of Prokofiev is
"sardonic," but that doesn't begin to describe scherzo's real beauty and
its complicated emotional stance.  Parts of it approach the savagery of
Shostakovich.  Others create an unearthly calm.  The slow movement is a
night song in three-part form.  The first section recalls the balcony
scene in Romeo and Juliet, while the middle seems slightly blues-y.  The
third section combines the two ideas.  The finale, "allegro con brio,"
has an idiosyncratic structure, somewhat related to rondo, and once
again, we find ourselves in the sound-world of Peter and the Wolf.

The second sonata all by itself would have constituted one of the great
violin works in the repertory, but the first sonata, when it finally
came, pushed it a bit into the shade, artistically speaking.  The second
sonata, despite its beauty, seems a bit cool.  Except for telling places
here and there, it tends to keep the listener on its surface.  On the
other hand, the first sonata, touched by World War II, has the darkness
associated with the piano sonatas 6 through 8 -- the so-called "war
sonatas" -- as well as with the sixth symphony.  We approach the bleak
landscapes of Shostakovich.  Indeed, one can argue that the only Modern
violin sonata that equals its tragic weight is Shostakovich's own late
entry.

The composer plunges us into a tough-minded gloom with the sonata's
opening measures.  One falls into a vision of wasteland, with bare octaves
in the piano and a violin part void of ornament -- all at stifled dynamic.
The first movement ends on a quietly plucked fourth double stop from the
violin.  The second movement, a heavy dance, begins with an evocation
of stamping feet.  For the same sheer uneasiness amid the energy, you'd
have to go to some of Mahler's blacker Laendler.  The slow movement
begins with a promise of hope, a trickle of notes as in the opening to
Smetana's Moldau, but this turns into a heartbreaking lament.  The finale
shoots out of the gate with the manic energy of the ending of the Piano
Sonata No.  7, though minus the obsessive repetition.  Toward the end,
however, we return to the sonata's beginning.  The empty winds skitter
over the desert.

The piano writing in the Heifetz transcriptions impressed me the most.
After all, you would expect the violin part to be well done, but who
knew that Heifetz understood the piano well enough to produce such
thoroughly convincing (and Prokofiev-like) keyboard parts?

Shaham plays all of these things as well as they can be played.  Above
all, he conveys Prokofiev's emotional deeps.  Not even Oistrakh surpasses
him.  He is, foremost, a lyrical player, but he can add the weight when
he needs to.  He doesn't have to scale down in order to roar.  This
serves him particularly well in the 5 Melodies.  However, his sonatas
are the best performances I've heard.  Some violinists are so caught
up in the surface of these works that they misrepresent the scores as
superficial.  Shaham shows you the beating heart of these things.  His
sister not only matches him, but takes full advantage of her turn in the
spotlight.  These performance owe as much to her as to him.

A must for Prokofiev fans.

Steve Schwartz

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