Violin Sonatas from the 20th Century
by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Schnittke

Media Review / Listening Diary 2015-03-27

2015-03-27 — Original posting
2016-08-03 — Brushed up for better readability
2018-07-07 — Added note on an alternative recording for the Shostakovich sonata.


Lydia Mordkovich playing Sonatas by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, & Schnittke

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke: Violin Sonatas — Mordkovich; CD cover

Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata in D for solo violin, op.115; Sonata in C for two violins, op.56
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for violin and piano, op.134
Alfred Schnittke: Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich

Lydia Mordkovich, Emma Young, violin; Clifford Benson, piano

Chandos — Chan 8988 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1991
Booklet: 16 pp., en/de/fr

Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke: Violin Sonatas — Mordkovich; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

I have not purchased that CD. It must have been passed on to me with my mother’s heritage (though I do wonder whether she has ever listened to this!). I’m in the process of “sucking in” the remaining few CDs that I haven’t ripped yet. In doing so, I ran into this recording and felt that listening to this now would be appropriate, given that Lydia Mordkovich (1944 – 2014) passed away in December last year.

The Artist

Lydia Mordkovich (whose name was just vaguely familiar to me prior to the addition of this CD to my collection) spent two years at the music school  in Odessa (1960 – 62). She then moved to Moscow, where she studied with David Oistrakh, serving as his assistant for several years (1968 – 70). 1974 – 1979 she served as a teacher in Israel. In 1980 she settled in the U.K. and started a recording career. Finally, in 1995, she became a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Upon listening to the above recording, I felt that Lydia Mordkovich’s provenance from the “great Russian school” is obvious. She very much adopted Oistrakh’s plain, full, dense tone & articulation. And also Oistrakh’s vibrato: prominent, but still natural-sounding. It is not too nervous, nor too heavy. Her playing is technically and musically flawless, even superb. It is a natural fit for the compositions in this recording (made in 1991). And with Emma Young (violin) and Clifford Benson (piano) she had excellent partners for these compositions. For all I can tell, the interpretation here is excellent, expressive. And the recording sound is just fine. I have nothing to compare these recordings with. Therefore, I will focus on the music rather than the interpretation in the text below (the times shown are track durations on the above CD).

Lydia Mordkovitch (1944 - 2014), © Fritz Curzon
Lydia Mordkovitch (1944 – 2014), © Fritz Curzon

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

I actually felt that this CD is a nice complement to the recording that I discussed in my Listening Diary on 2014-08-19, featuring the two Prokofiev sonatas for violin and piano. The sonata No.1 in F minor op.80, No.2 in D major op.94bis, played by Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne. Those two sonatas are very different. Sonata No.1 was written in a stressful period in the composer’s life. Hence, it may appear rather harsh and difficult to access. In contrast, the D major sonata is a lighter, often joyful, sometimes serene, sometimes joking work and may appear easier to get access to. I was curious about how the sonatas on the above CD would fit into this scheme:

Sonata in D major for Solo Violin, op.115

This short sonata (12’06” total) was composed in 1947 and features three movements:

  1. Moderato (4’32”)
  2. Tema: Andante dolce — Variations I – V (3’39”)
  3. Con brio — Allegro precipitato— Tempo I — Allegro precipitato (3’55”)

What a joyful and playful piece of music, played with full sound, clear intonation. It’s a pleasure for the listener, and certainly also for the artist! All three movements could just as well be among Eugène Ysaÿe‘s (1858 – 1931) sonatas for violin solo. I don’t mean to rate the two composers against each other, but Ysaÿe’s pieces are probably more popular than this sonata.

The Moderato, with a fierce theme, is amazingly well-adapted to the language of the violin. The second movement a set of variations on a lovely, lyrical, slightly melancholic theme, equally enjoyable. The last movement is like a synthesis of the first two. None of the movements even remotely hints at the difficult period that the composer went through around the time when this sonata was composed.

Sonata in C major for Two Violins, op.56

The sonata for two violins (16’02” total) was composed in 1932, at a time when Prokofiev started thinking about returning to the Soviet Union. It features four movements:

  1. Andante cantabile (3’23”)
  2. Allegro (3’12”)
  3. Commodo, quasi allegretto (4’15”)
  4. Allegro con brio – Più presto (5’12”)

The first movement is a calm piece that plays with dissonances between two melodies following each other, joining into unison, separating again. Overall, it’s still very tonal, resting, like an afternoon in the sun. The Allegro is forming a strong contrast, with its strong rhythmic theme, interspersed with canon-like imitation sequences. Sometimes the two voices seem to chase each other, almost hectically, until the piece comes to a sudden closure. The third movement is again very lyrical, with two nicely singing melodies complementing each other. Finally, the last movement is very playful: fun for the players, for sure, switching between lyrical, melodic sections, and more rhythmically accentuated ones. Really beautiful music, overall. The more I listen to it, the more I like it!

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

Sonata for Violin and Piano, op.134

This piece was born out of an “accident”: in 1967, the composer presented his Second Violin Concerto in C♯ minor (op.129) to David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974). Shostakovich wrote that concerto as a present on the occasion of Oistrakh’s 60th birthday. But, as the composer was off by a year, he was “forced” to write another present the following year (1968). This became the Sonata for Violin and Piano op.134. As Gerald Larner writes in the booklet to the above CD, op.134 is much more than an apology. It actually turned out to be longer (29’33” in this interpretation) than the violin concerto op.129. The sonata features three movements:

  1. Andante (9’28”)
  2. Allegretto (6’20”)
  3. Largo — Andante — Largo (13’46”)

Notes on the Movements

The first movement was originally annotated Pastorale, the second one Allegro furioso, and the third movement Variations on a Theme. These annotations later changed to simple Roman numbers. I would describe my listening experience with this sonata with “per aspera ad astra“. In two ways, actually: first, the sonata starts as a rather austere beauty, with hidden dodecaphony. It therefore may take a while to get “into” this music. However, after two sometimes harsh movements, the sonata ends in an absolutely beautiful last movement! The first movement is strongly reminding of the First Sonata for Violin and Piano in F minor, op.80 by Sergei Prokofiev, both harmonically, as well as in the overall musical language. I’m sure these similarities are far more than coincidental.

Also the often really furious second movement often reminds me of Prokofiev’s op.80. Though occasionally it also seems to allude to Peter and the Wolf, also by Sergei Prokofiev. In other words: there are also almost folklorist aspects to this music.

The third and longest movement is an absolute beauty, with a chorale-like theme that strongly reminds me of the second movement in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel”. A marvelous piece, even though it’s definitely not music which one just listens to “en passant”! The difficulties in the piano part are horrific. I’m impressed by the performance of both Lydia Mordkovich and the late Clifford Benson (1946 – 2007).

Addendum 2018-07-07 — A Newer Recording for Comparison

Shostakovich: Violin Sonata op.134, Piano Trios — Ilya Gringolts, Daniel Haefliger, Gilles Vonsattel; CD cover

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Violin and Piano, op.134
Piano Trio No.1 in C minor, op.8 (1923); Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, op.67 (1944)
Ilya Gringolts, violin; Gilles Vonsattel, piano
Daniel Haefliger, cello

Claves Records 50-1817 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2017; Booklet: 19 pp. fr/en

Shostakovich: Violin Sonata op.134, Piano Trios — Ilya Gringolts, Daniel Haefliger, Gilles Vonsattel; CD, EAN-13 barcode
amazon media link

I recently got interested in Ilya Gringolts (*1982) and his Gringolts Quartet, after I met the ensemble in concerts. Information on the quartet and its members bis found in the relevant concert reviews. Gilles Vonsattel is a Swiss-born American pianist. Here are the relevant tracks from that CD:

  1. Andante (10’55”)
  2. Allegretto (6’10”)
  3. Largo — Andante — Largo (12’11”)

Short Comparison

This second performance was recorded in 2015—25 years after Lydia Mordkovich’s. I don’t want to expand this into a detailed comparison, just a few points:

  • Expectedly, the newer recording with Ilya Gringolts offers better recording technique, more plasticity, a wider dynamic scope, better sonority (piano)
  • In purelv instrumental technique, both pianists and both violinists are excellent. In my opinion, Ilya Gringolts is slightly more accurate in intonation;
  • Quite obviously, Gringolts’ first movement is slower, though that still fits the Andante annotation. I also feel that he is slightly more consistent in the tempo.
  • To me, Ilya Gringolts’ playing is also more expressive, more emotional than Mordkovich’s (in the Allegretto, she is a tad rigid, if not stiff / schematic).
  • This could be due to the recording technique, but it feels as if Ilya Gringolts’ Guarneri has the bigger tone

Overall, for all of the movements, I have a slight preference for this newer recording (★★★★½) with Ilya Gringolts and Gilles Vonsattel over the older one (★★★★) with Lydia Mordkovich and Clifford Benson.

Alfred Schnittke
Alfred Schnittke

Alfred Schnittke (1934 — 1998)

Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich for two Violins

Inserted between Prokofiev and Shostakovich on the above CD is a short piece “Praeludium in Memoriam D. Shostakovich for two Violins” (4’18”) by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998). Schnittke was a prolific composer, his large oeuvre including 10 symphonies, four violin concertos, numerous other concertos, including six Concerti Grossi, a double concerto, a triple concerto, choral music, operas, chamber music, solo instrumental music, etc.

Schnittke composed this Prelude in memory of Shostakovich (Andante) in 1975, shortly after Shostakovich’s death. It is a beautiful meditation for violin. It uses Shostakovich’s personal motto, D — E♭ [= Es = S] — C — H. For a long time, there is a bowed ostinato melody over a plucked D, reaching a culmination. At this point, the second violin joins in, hidden behind a curtain. The movement ends calando / morendo, in silence. A composition both fascinating, as well as of utter, mesmerizing beauty…

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