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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Op.50 (1931) [22.40]
String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op.92 ‘On Kabardinian themes’ (1941) [21.44]
Visions fugitives, Op.22 arr. Sergei Simonov (1915-17)* [25.07]
Quartetto Energie Nove
rec. Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland, 28-30 September 2009 and *28 May 2012
DYNAMIC CDS 726 [69.31]

Of the two composers most closely associated with the Stalinist era in Russia, it is the string quartets of Shostakovich which have entered the international repertory rather than those of Prokofiev. Most of Shostakovich’s quartets were written after Stalin’s death, while Prokofiev had the great misfortune to time his death to coincide with that of the dictator. His only two quartets, one written before his return to the Soviet Union and the second whilst evacuated away from the war zone during the Great Patriotic War ten years later, have made nothing like the same impact as those of Shostakovich. There are only two other integral recordings in the current catalogue.
 
It has become traditional to contrast the music which Prokofiev wrote in the West before 1933 during his enfant terrible phase with the works he wrote after his return to Russia in the ‘social realist’ style. In fact these two quartets show a decided similarity of idiom. By the time he came to write the First Quartet in 1931 Prokofiev had already moved a good distance away from his early modernist style and much of the music here already eerily anticipates both the manner and the music of his Soviet-era ballet Romeo and Juliet.There are pre-echoes of Tybalt’s death, the music anticipating Juliet’s ‘suicide’ and even of some of the more anguished love music. It is clear that when Prokofiev came to write the ballet he recalled with affection some of the music he had written for the quartet four years earlier. The Second Quartet makes use of traditional folk melodies from the North Caucasian region to which Prokofiev was evacuated, but his treatment of the themes harks back to his earlier Scythian Suite in its almost Bartókian rhythmic emphasis. Neither work can be at all easy to play, but the Quartetto Energie Nova make light of all difficulties and attack both works with eagerness and vivacity as well as impeccable tuning. They are ideally recorded in a close - but not too close - acoustic.
 
Given such energetic playing, comparisons with other sets of the quartets would be invidious, so choice will depend on the coupling. All three recordings which give us both quartets recognise that in combination they make short measure, and all three solve the matter of fill-ups in different ways. The Aurora String Quartet on Naxos couple the two quartets with the Cello Sonata; the Coull String Quartet on Hyperion give us the chamber version of the Overture on Hebrew themes. Here the Quartetto Energie Nova give us a unique recording of the piano Visions fugitives in an arrangement for string quartet by Sergei Simonov. The booklet notes give us regrettably little detail regarding this arrangement, but it works surprisingly well, with the often cheeky piano writing translating well to the differently chirpy sounds of the string quartet. The best choice of coupling was the String Quintet supplied by the Russian Quartet’s recording for Arte Nova, but that disc is no longer available although it can still be found online and the performances are considerably rougher.
 
Nonetheless this Quartetto Energie Nova must earn the highest recommendation for giving us a chance to hear both Prokofiev quartets in such excellently turned performances. I have not heard either of its currently available competitors, but they cannot possibly be any better than this.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey 


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