Monday 30 June 2014

Brilliance and darkness - Prokofiev: Violin sonatas

Prokofiev Violin Sonatas - Alina Ibragimova, Steven Osborne - Hyperion CD67514
Prokofiev Violin Sonatas; Alina Ibragimova, Steven Osborne; Hyperion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Powerful and brilliant accounts of Prokofiev's three works for violin and piano

Prokofiev's three works for violin and piano manage to traverse a significant section of his career and in their intensity and seriousness reflect much that was going on in his life. This new recording from Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne on Hyperion reflects both the brilliance and darkness of these works.

Prokofiev started his Violin Sonata in F minor in 1938, eight years after homesickness had caused his return to Soviet Russia. The sonata was written against the backdrop of Stalin's terror in which colleagues disappeared, such as Vladimir Mutnykh general director of the Bolshoi who had commissioned Romeo and Juliet, Adiran Pitrovsky co-librettist of Romeo and Juliet and Natalya Sats who had commissioned and narrated Peter and the Wolf. Unlike Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto, the violin sonata uses no material pre-dating Prokofiev's return to Russia and this shows in the work's darkness and toughness. Quite so much so, that Prokofiev put it to one side more than once and only completed it in the 1940's, after David Oistrakh had persuaded him to transform the Flute Sonata into the Second Violin Sonata.

The opening Andante assai of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor is full of weirdness and darkness, its spare and disparate texture brought out well by Ibragimova and Osborne. There is a dark edge to the opening, and Ibragimova is mesmerising in the striking whispered scale passages. But there is fierceness too, something that Osborne brings out in the piano. The Allegro brusco comes over as a manic dance, in a thrilling performance with vigorous violence and crazy anger alternating with lightness. But the performers also highlight the neoclassical structure to the piece which lies beneath the manic elements. Here and elsewhere they keep us aware of the tightness of control of Prokofiev's anger and the formal structures which contain it. The Andante is more tender, with Ibragimova giving us a  lovely singing tone yet there is edge too and a feeling of wiry strength, complemented by Osborne's tough yet tender playing. Finally a manic toccata in the Allegrissimo finale, full of brittle bite and boundless energy, but then the strange skittery scales appear and we finish where we started.

There is a lovely line to Alina Ibragimova's playing with a strong narrow tone which gives elegance and steel to Prokofiev's music. She is matched by the firm delicacy of Steven Osborne's playing. Both do superb justice to this unsettling music, where even the quietly lyrical pieces are not what they appear. It would be easy, I think, to go overboard with the anger in this piece, but Ibragimova and Osborne put things in balance with the neoclassical pull of Prokofiev's music and the sonata is all the more moving for it.

Prokofiev's Five Melodies, Op. 35b were originally songs without words written in the late 1920's for the Russian mezzo-soprano Nina Koshetz. He wrote them whilst touring California, and though he seems to have been inspired by the state's natural beauty, I can hear nothing Californian in this music. In the violin and piano transcription, they are a series of haunting songs without words, with Ibragimova giving a lovely flowing sense of line to them, complemented sympathetically by Osborne. The final movement, Andante non troppo, starts quietly intense like the others but develops into an astringent dance finale.

Prokofiev wrote his Flute Sonata in 1943 whilst he was in Perm discussing he ballet, Cinderella. Instigated and helped by violinist David Oistrakh, Prokofiev transformed the work into the Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major. Whilst not exactly a sunny work, it is more straightforward and less dark than the Violin Sonata No. 1. But the musical material is still not uncomplicated. The opening Moderato is beautiful and Ibragimova plays with fine grained tone, and firm but sympathetic partnership from Osborne. But both make you aware that there are undercurrents to the music too. The Scherzo has a skittering brilliance, which is positively manic, whilst the Andante has a lovely thoughtful and slowly unfolding line. But Prokofiev includes bluesy elements there too, and though he writes without the sardonic angst of Shostakovich, the music is strongly and deeply felt. The finale is a bright and attractive dance, with the feeling that we making a determined effort to chase the blues away.

As readers of this blog may have realised, chamber music and instrumental sonatas are not my most favourite of forms and I approached this disc with some trepidation. But the intensely sympathetic performances from Ibragimova and Osborne convinced me. Both have the technical skill to overcome the challenges of these works and then to give us coherent and intensely involving performances, bringing out the strong feeling beneath the music. Highly recommended.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) - Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor Op.80 [26.50]
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) - Five Melodies Op.35bis [11.49]
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) - Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major Op 94 bis [22.04]
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Steven Osborne (piano)
Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, 11-13 July 2013
HYPERION CDA67514 1CD [60.45]

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