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 information on the recording with Ilya Gringolts & Gilles Vonsattel
2021-03-08 — Added information on the recording with Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov
2021-04-18 — Completed comparison of op.134 with Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov

Table of Contents

Lydia Mordkovich playing Sonatas by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and 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 in G major, 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.

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

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).

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

Sergei Prokofiev (Wikimedia Commons)
Sergei Prokofiev (Wikimedia Commons)

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)

Dmitri Shostakovich (Wikimedia Commons / Deutsche Fotothek)
Dmitri Shostakovich (Wikimedia Commons / Deutsche Fotothek)

Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, 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).

Recording with Ilya Gringolts & Gilles Vonsattel (2015)

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

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for violin and piano in G major, 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 (10’56”)
  2. Allegretto (6’11”)
  3. Largo — Andante — Largo (12’11”)

Ilya Gringolts performs on a 1742/43 violin by Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù” (1698 – 1744).

Recording with Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov (2011)

Shostakovich: piano concertos, violin sonata — Melnikov, Faust (CD cover)

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for violin and piano in G major, op.134
Piano Concertos No.1 in C minor, op.35, No.2 in F major op.102
Isabelle Faust, violin; Alexander Melnikov, piano; Jeroen Berwaerts, trumpet
Teodor Currentzis / Mahler Chamber Orchestra

harmonia mundi France 902104 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2012; Booklet: 32 pp. fr/en/de

Shostakovich: piano concertos, violin sonata — Melnikov, Faust (CD, EAN-13 barcode)
amazon media link

I recently purchased the above CD with Dmitri Shostakovich‘s two piano concertos (Concerto No.1 in C minor for piano, trumpet, and string orchestra, op.35, and the Concerto No.2 in F minor for piano and orchestra, op.102). The artists are Alexander Melnikov (*1973) at the piano, and Teodor Currentzis (*1972) conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The trumpet solo in the first piano concerto is played by Jeroen Berwaerts (*1975).

In its center, that CD also includes Shostakovich’s Sonata for violin and piano in G major, op.134, with Alexander Melnikov at the piano, performing with his favorite duo partner at the violin, Isabelle Faust (*1972). The track durations for the violin sonata are as follows:

  1. Andante (10’33”)
  2. Allegretto (6’43”)
  3. Largo — Andante — Largo (13’59”)

Isabelle Faust performs on the 1704 violin “La Belle au bois dormant” by Antonius Stradivarius (1644 – 1737)

Short Comparison

I want to limit this short posting to a few key points points. For a more straightforward comparison, I have put together a little table with the timings for the three recordings above:

Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, op.134 — Timings
Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, op.134 — Timings

Lydia Mordkovich & Clifford Benson

Lydia Mordkovich’s recording precedes the other two by 24 and 20 years, respectively. Therefore, it isn’t unexpected that her recording can hardly compete with the newer ones in terms of clarity, spatial definition, transparency. Still, the recording isn’t far behind the others, technically. The technical limitations primarily affect the piano sound, which feels slightly “muffled”.

Andante: As for the interpretation: the durations of all three recordings are fairly consistent, though in the first movement, Mordkovich / Benson are distinctly faster. That isn’t so obvious in the beginning, but with the introduction of the second theme (staccato in the violin), the artist move to a distinctly faster, occasionally slightly urging pace. Throughout this movement, I noted the beautiful sonority of the violin. It feels as if Lydia Mordkovich wanted to present the beauty of the violin part, which beats / supersedes the dodecaphony in the piano part. ★★★★

Allegretto: Initially short and austere in the violin staccato, a tasd rigid, if not (intentionally) stiff/schematic. Still: virtuosic, technically excellent in both instruments. However, around the center of the movement, the violin articulation gradually softens, even seems to lose some momentum. ★★★★

Largo — Andante — Largo: serene in the initial Largo, simple, almost modest, but still an excellent interpretation, though occasionally (in the Andante) a tad less clean than the other two. ★★★★

Ilya Gringolts & Gilles Vonsattel

Andante: From the first notes, the piano part feels somber, heavy, pounding like having more “weight”, and the slower (slowest) pace underlines this. It still fits the Andante annotation, though. Ilya Gringolts often plays with little, if any vibrato, exhibiting the beauty of the violin part in its purest form. The switch to a faster pace in the second theme is much more subtle, discreet than with Lydia Mordkovich: the tempo in Gringolts’ performance feels more consistent / coherent. Here, the first movement primarily appears to express a feeling of loneliness (more than in the other two interpretations). And I think that the full, dark, round bass sonority in the piano is more than just the work of the sound technician (a Bösendorfer grand?). ★★★★★

Allegretto: Ilya Gringolts is not austere here: passionate almost to the excess, with fervor, wild, rough—the term “brutalism” comes to mind: a performance with “teeth”, inexorably, even painfully “pulling down” those parallel glissandi. And no, it’s not a caricature: Shostakovich was expressing how he felt through much of his productive life: despair, pressure and resistance… ★★★★★

Largo — Andante — Largo: The beginning bears reminiscences of the brutalism in the second movement, and also the Andante gradually grows into a highly emote, expressive climax. Around this, the melodic beauty of the Largo parts is all the more intense. In the end, though, Ilya Gringolts and Gilles Vonsattel depict a scene of loneliness—the forlornness of a graveyard? ★★★★★

Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov

Andante: No, not sterile at all, but still exhibiting perfection in intonation—technical perfection in general, both on the violin, as well as in the piano part. The fastest pace at the beginning, thereafter highly differentiated not only in the dynamics, but also in the elaborate tempo concept: the second theme may be a little faster, but that is rather inconspicuous, becomes part of the overall “tempo strategy”: a highly refined interpretation, indeed! ★★★★★

Allegretto: The slowest pace among the three recordings. In comparison with the others, this interpretation feels a tad static—is it too clean? Too “straight” in the intonation? Too perfect? This recording puts the most focus on the piano part—performed with technical brilliance, superiority, perfection, as expected. ★★★★

Largo — Andante — Largo: After the eruption of the introduction, the artists present a more introverted interpretation, often reflective, introverted, but with a beauty that is “glowing from within”. The performance is slightly more moderate, less radical than Gringolts’ in the Andante climax. ★★★★½


If some of my comments sound critical, one should keep in mind that all three performances / recordings are at a very high level: I could not think of any significant “deficiencies” with any of the three, both on the part of the violinist, as well as in the piano part. Summary outcome:

  • Lydia Mordkovich & Clifford Benson: ★★★★ — authoritative and authentic, no doubt, though ranking slightly behind the other two recordings.
  • Ilya Gringolts & Gilles Vonsattel: ★★★★★ — my favorite recording: certainly the most radically expressive one!
  • Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov: ★★★★½ — to me, an excellent compromise between expression / virtuosity and estheticism.

I can wholeheartedly recommend both of the newer recordings!

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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