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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Violin Sonatas

  • Sonata #1 for Violin & Piano in F minor, Op. 80
  • Sonata #2 for Violin & Piano in D Major, Op. 94a
Mikhail Simonyan, violin
Alexei Podkorytov, piano
Delos DE3385
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The notes to this CD by Gail Wein rightly point out the stark differences between these two sonatas: the F minor is dark and foreboding, while the D Major, a transcription of the sunny Flute Sonata, is light-hearted and utterly charming. Side by side, the two works make much the same contrast as Prokofiev's first two symphonies, the graceful "Classical" and the austere and savage Second. Thus, it is not easy for many front-rank violinists to convincingly capture the essence of both these highly individual works. David Oistrakh, with Lev Oborin (and other pianists), did so quite effectively. So has Gidon Kremer in his DG recording with the renowned Martha Argerich. In fact, the Kremer/Argerich has been the king of the hill for the last couple of decades, surpassing twenty or so rival recordings.

Young Mikhail Simonyan, a Siberian native now based in Philadelphia, tackles both works with a knowing sense for their very different personas. He digs in hard in the dark first movement of the F minor and is seconded in his weighty, searching manner by Russian-born, Juilliard-trained Alexei Podkorytov. Both find a mixture of bleakness and nervous energy here, even in the quieter moments: try the closing pages, with the violin anxiously playing pizzicato and the piano striking ominous chords. The Scherzo is no oasis from the darkness: it's filled with tension and rawness, as the two players seem to slash their way through the music with white-heat spirit, in no way playing down the dour, often crushing character of the music.

The third movement opens dreamily, as it should, with meltingly lyrical phrasing by Simonyan. The music turns bleak and threatening with that haunting three-note alternate theme, though I think here the tempo may a tad fast. The finale begins with a sense of hope in its seemingly optimistic energy, and Simonyan and Podkorytov deftly capture the spirit of the music. Of course, Prokofiev could not shirk feelings of the war here for long (the work was completed in 1946), and the mood eventually darkens, with a sense the music is making a futile attempt to break away from something in sinister pursuit. It ends in catastrophe, first collapsing then recalling the ghostly closing pages of the first movement, and finally turning despairingly philosophical. The two players convey all this convincingly, in the end challenging many past performers in this great work. I would still give the edge to Kremer/Argerich, though the more I live with this new recording, the more I could eventually favor it. It's quite good: muscular and closely-miked (with vivid detail), it sounds like the product of seasoned artists, fully aware of the profound character of this work.

The D Major Sonata leads off the disc and, as suggested above, it is performed with a sense for the work's lighter persona. Yet, I think Simonyan may be a bit too aggressive in this good-natured creation: dynamics on the violin tend a bit toward the louder side even in quieter passages, though Simonyan (and Podkorytov) are very accurate and sensitive players most of the time. Their third movement is charming, especially the jazzy middle section, and the finale is jaunty and all-conquering, though it might have been given less aggressive dynamics as well. The sound, as with the other sonata, is close and detailed. Overall, the performance is a fine one, and on the whole the disc is most worthwhile. Recommended.

Copyright © 2009, Robert Cummings