Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 (1916/17) [23:49]
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935) [28:00]
Sonata for Solo Violin in D major, Op.115 (1947) [12:42]
Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Russian National Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. January 2012 Grand Hall of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow (concertos), May 2012 Concertboerderij Valthermond, The Netherlands (Sonata)
If I were able to nominate my Artists of the Year Arabella Steinbacher and Vasily Petrenko would undoubtedly be my choices. Here they collaborate with the Russian National Orchestra. Last year I reviewed Steinbacher’s recording of the Shostakovich First and Second Violin Concertos and remain overjoyed by her superb playing with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on Orfeo C 687 061 A. For the last few years I have been reporting on a number of Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra concerts with their principal conductor Vasily Petrenko. The progress made by the Liverpool orchestra under the Saint Petersburg-born Maestro has been remarkable. A couple of weeks ago I wrote of his Preston performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1Titan’ “I felt privileged just to be in the hall to experience such a magnificent performance that crackled with energy and excitement.”
The Violin Concerto No. 1 is a relatively early work composed in 1916/17 and one of the last to be written before Prokofiev left Russia. Prokofiev chooses not to exploit the virtuosic qualities of the violin. Instead soloist and orchestra are more like equal partners. Nevertheless it is an excellent score and I would like to see it programmed far more often. At times it reminds me of the Walton concerto, a work the English composer wrote over twenty years later in 1938. I feel sure he must have known the Prokofiev. In the fascinating Andantino Steinbacher evokes an shiveringly icy Russian chill. I love the way that Munich-born Steinbacher accelerates through the movement’s propulsive climax. The music of the sardonic Scherzo just flashes along. The Finale’s mystery and introspection rises to an explosion of passionate lyricism. The shimmering violin line feels as if Steinbacher has dipped her ‘Booth’ Stradivari (1716) in glistening liquid gold. She imparts proficiency, concentration and assurance of an intensity rarely encountered in this work.
From 1935 the Violin Concerto No. 2 tends to be overshadowed by its predecessor. The writing is highly melodic and more overtly romantic than the earlier work. In the opening Allegro moderato one immediately notices the relatively lighter scoring. Steinbacher continues her marvellous form with some vivid and deliciously warm colours. The central Andante with its contrasting textures is gloriously lyrical. Rhythmic and somewhat satirical in character the violin is prominent against the spare instrumental scoring. Steinbacher, engaging and stylish as ever, is complemented by sensitive support from Petrenko.
I found little difference in quality between these rewarding Steinbacher/Petrenko accounts of the Prokofiev concertos and the classic recording from soloist Kyung-Wha Chung and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under André Previn. Recorded in 1975 at the Kingsway Hall, London, Chung plays passionately displaying wonderful tone and control. The generous coupling is Chung’s striking Stravinsky Violin Concerto. All on Decca 476 7226.
The filler on this PentaTone release is the Sonata for Solo Violi. Originally the three movement Sonata from 1947 was intended for a group of student violinists playing in unison. Co-incidentally only last week I heard a rare performance of the Prokofiev score in its version for unison violins played by the violins of the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. The Sonata was written at an extremely difficult time and was the target for much damaging criticism by the Soviet authorities. I certainly prefer the solo violin version of the sonata compared to the original scoring for unison violins especially with playing as enjoyable as that accomplished by Steinbacher. Yearning melody and brash virtuosity interlace the opening Moderato. Used as the basis for the five variations the theme is simple and rustic in character. Steinbacher makes light work of it.
There’s excellent sound quality throughout this hybrid multichannel SACD. PentaTone engineers lay on vividly clear and well balanced sonics. The booklet notes are informative and readable.
Michael Cookson
Steinbacher is engaging and stylish as ever and is complemented by sensitive support from Petrenko.

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