Sergei Prokofiev
Works for Violin & Piano

Media Review / Listening Diary 2014-08-19


2014-08-19 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-13 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-23 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction

My first encounters with Alina Ibragimova were in recordings with the Chiaroscuro Quartet, where she plays the first violin, see the Listening Diary 2014-04-05 (Mozart Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K.546), the postings “Mozart: String Quartet E♭, K.428” and “Beethoven: String Quartet op.95“, and finally a discussion of her recording of Schubert’s works for piano and violin, in the Listening Diary 2013-11-21. Both in her string quartet and as solo violinist, Alina Ibragimova definitely caught my interest. So, I could not resist when I saw the announcement for the following recording of Prokofiev’s works for violin and piano (recorded in 2013):

Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas opp.80 & 94bis, 5 Melodies — Ibragimova, Osborne; CD cover

Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas op.80 & 94bis, 5 Melodies op.35bis

Alina Ibragimova, Steven Osborne

hyperion CDA67514 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2014
Booklet: 16 pp. e/f/d

Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas opp.80 & 94bis, 5 Melodies — Ibragimova, Osborne; CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
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5 Melodies for Violin and Piano, op.35bis

In 1920, Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) composed 5 Songs without Words, op.35 (vocalises for soprano and piano), for Nina Koshez, a famous Russian mezzo-soprano. In 1925, Prokofiev created transcriptions for violin and piano, with the help of the violinist Paul (Paweł) Kochański.

The Interpretation

Alina Ibragimova andSteven Osborne place these melodies between the sonata in F minor, op.80 and the second sonata in D, op.94bis. That’s likely a good idea, given the vastly different character of the two sonatas, even though it breaks the chronology on the CD. The five pieces are relatively short:

  1. Andante (1’52”): An nice, singing melody, with an expressive climax —
  2. Lento, ma non troppo (2’25”): The Lento is in the base beat in the pianist’s left hand. Shorter note values dominate the right hand, and the main melody in the violin bridges / links these two components.
  3. Animato, ma non allegro (3’10”): Dramatic and urging in the beginning, later changing towards a more meditative mood.
  4. Allegretto leggiero e scherzando (1’06”): A nice, playful, but very short Scherzo movement.
  5. Andante non troppo (3’16”): A strange annotation, as Andante stands to “walking”, or a “normal” / natural tempo (typically around M.M. = 60, close to the human heartbeat). Hence: what is “not too much walking”? Not too slow, or not too fast? From listening to this recording I assume the artists interpreted this as “Andante, but not too fast“. The way this movement is written, it must be tempting for the artists to fall into an accelerated pace; needless to say that the tempo is perfectly controlled, i.e., tempo changes are just intended agogic play.

Even though there are also lively, even sections, even dramatic moments, the overall tone in these pieces is rather meditative, calm, reflective; very nice music, not really difficult to “understand”, definitely never boring. The interpretation is excellent (and so is the recording), well balanced and transparent, with excellent coordination & partnership among the artists.


Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor, op.80

A Reference Recording

This composition reflects the difficult, troubling times that Prokofiev went through when he wrote this. In the 1930’s, Prokofiev had returned to the USSR, in 1936 he settled in Moscow. Soon thereafter, Stalin’s terror regime started affecting everyone’s life. Prokofiev saw numerous fellow musicians disappear over the following years, most did not survive. This sonata was started in 1938, but the work was interrupted by the Second World War and other compositions. Prokofief resumed the composition in 1943 and only finished it in summer 1946, with the help of David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974). The latter also premiered the sonata, together with the pianist Lev Oborin (1907 – 1974). On YouTube one can find a recording (1946) with these artists:

Comparing Reference & New

Compared to newer recordings, such as  Alina Ibragimova‘s / Steven Osborne‘s from 2013, David Oistrakh’s is obviously far more limited in sound quality. Another, significant difference is that in the older recording, the violin (Oistrakh) is clearly placed in foreground, where it dominates the sound and the recording, while the piano is heard more in the back, with somewhat dull sound (and not very well tuned, I’m afraid!). Both very high and very low frequencies are attenuated considerably, if present at all.

Alina Ibragimova’s playing is far more inconspicuous, it seems, and the piano (Steven Osborne) more prominent, dominating. This may be a deliberate / conscious choice by the sound engineer and the artists. From a listener’s point-of-view, I would prefer the violin to be a bit more in foreground, though not quite as much as with Oistrakh: Prokofiev was a pianist, but this is still a violin sonata, after all!

Comparison, by Movement

Besides these basic aspects, let me quickly go through the movements:

I. Andante assai

A movement often described as sombre, dark, tragic. It starts with low, dark chords on the piano, the violin seems to depict pain, loneliness, sadness, angst, maybe. However, after a couple auditions, I would still claim that some of the melodies in the middle part are touching with inner beauty, at least in Ibragimova’s subtle, expressive interpretation. In the last part, the violin has some shivering scales which Ibragimova plays very fast, and with extreme ppp. According to Oistrakh, the composed wanted these (and the equivalent passages in the last movement) to sound like the wind passing over a graveyard.

Oistrakh’s playing initially appears more specious, though one can enjoy his intense, expressive playing, his great tone. Some of this may be the recording technique, but he appears to use much less dynamic range. There is rarely a real p, and even the “graveyard scales” are p at best, maybe mf. Overall, this really sounds like a violin solo with piano accompaniment, whereas Ibragimova / Osborne form a real duo, perfectly in tune with each other.
Duration: 6’24” (Ibragimova) / 7’20” (Oistrakh)

II. Allegro brusco

One could see this movement as depicting industrialization, the hard life of workers in heavy metal industry. But of course, in reality, this music is a child of war and of Stalin’s terror, very much in tune with the composer’s “war sonatas”. In particular, it reminds me of parts of the first movement of the Piano Sonata No.7 in B, op.83. The violin tone is meant to be loud, rough, coarse. It is, indeed, both with Ibragimova as well as with Oistrakh. In the middle part, Prokofiev could not resist from adding a few nice cantilenas, though these inevitably lead into harsh dissonances. For me, both interpretations are equally impressive. Though, the newer recording is much more balanced. Here, the piano is a real / equivalent partner to the violin, sometimes maybe with the slight danger of overpowering the violin.
Duration: 6’17” (Ibragimova) / 6’20” (Oistrakh)

III. Andante

In Ibragimova’s / Osborne’s interpretation, this movement to me evokes pictures of a “populated void”, like a Kandinsky drawing with figures floating on a uniform, undefined background. The movement starts in a strange, “hovering” / “levitating” mood, with floating tonality, lacking “grounding” in the bass, ghastly, maybe menacing, or maybe another graveyard scene? The violin plays con sordino. Here, I definitely prefer the newer interpretation, as it is more evoking, richer in “intermediate tones”, the piano is much richer, more expressive, also more legato in the beginning, and it sounds as if Oistrakh’s sound engineer wanted to compensate the effect of the sordino by turning up the volume for the violin.
Duration: 7’13” (Ibragimova) / 7’30” (Oistrakh)

IV. Allegrissimo

In the first part, one gets the impression of a real fun piece. It’s playful, if not occasionally almost bursting with joy, full of enthralling drive and syncopated rhythms, again anticipating part of the Piano Sonata No.7 in B, op.83. This is interrupted with a lyrical, melodic passage, after which a pizzicato segment leads back to the initial, rhythmic craze / fun. That must be fun to play, to say the least! That’s all deception, though, as the dark, harsh and menacing tones of the first two movements return. In the end there are again these shivering “graveyard scales”, and the movement ends in silence. Oistrakh’s interpretation is slightly more heavy, more superficial in sound (engineering). Ibragimova’s / Osborne’s playing is more agile, lighter, and again more balanced overall.
Duration: 6’57” (Ibragimova) / 6’59” (Oistrakh)

Summary

This isn’t music that one can enjoy “en passant”. It requires a conscious, active listening effort; if you can afford that, it is a very rewarding (and much more than just interesting) piece of music, in an excellent interpretation by Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne! Oistrakh’s recording is an invaluable historic document, and of course an authentic / authoritative interpretation at least in the violin part. Unfortunately, the listening experience is seriously hampered by the limitations in the sound technique.


Violin Sonata No.2 in D major, op.94bis

This piece is based on a sonata for flute and piano (op.94) that was composed in 1942, while Prokofiev was living in Perm in the Ural mountains. In 1943, Prokofiev transcribed / transformed it into a violin sonata, upon a suggestion by his close friend, David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974), who also premiered this sonata, with Lev Oborin (1907 – 1974) at the piano. The second sonata was therefore finished before the first one (op.80, above).

This is completely different music. It is different in style: lightweight (almost happy / joyful) rather than tragic / dramatic (as op.80). And it refers to classical models. The character of a flute sonata persists in the violin version, even though (with Oistrakh’s guidance) the composer did much more than just to make the melody playable on the violin. There are numerous passages with multiple stopping, technically very “violin-like”. Yet, the composition (to me) appears to allude to works by French composers such as Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962) and others.

The Performance

I. Moderato

Formally, this is a classical sonata movement. According to the author of the liner notes (Daniel Jaffé), this movement refers back to the neoclassical style of the piano sonata No.5 in C, op.38 (1923), which apparently inspired Francis Poulenc‘s Flute Sonata. So, there is an indirect link to French composers. To me, this sounds like French music of the first half of the 20th century.
Duration: 7’08”

II. Scherzo: Presto — Poco più mosso — Tempo I

A real Scherzo, fun to play, rhythmically intricate, played here with excellent partnership and perfect coordination!
Duration: 4’22”

III. Andante

This starts as a lovely, serene tune, though in the second part the atmosphere changes and becomes more unsettled.
Duration: 3’32”

IV. Allegro con brio — Poco meno mosso — Tempo I

A playful movement, which in parts very much reminds me of “Peter and the Wolf” (op.67, 1936), or the early, neoclassical Symphony No.1 in D (“Classical”, 1917). It’s easy to access, and for sure fun to play, with an enthralling conclusion (and a surprising last bar)!
Duration: 7’01”

Summary

This is a very nice sonata; it is much easier to understand / get access to than op.80. But even though the D major sonata isn’t trivial to play, I personally find that, as a listening experience, op.80 offers much more depth and engagement. That assumes that the listener makes the conscious effort to “dive” into this music, of course! In any case, both sonatas are provided in an excellent interpretation by Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne.


Conclusion

Overall, the new recording with Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne is excellent. It features very good partnership, virtuosic, agile, yet unpretentious in the violin part. Definitely worth a recommendation!


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