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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in F Minor Op. 80 (1938-1946) [30:03]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D Major Op. 94bis (1943) [23:43]
Three Pieces from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Op. 64 [8:06]
Vadim Gluzman (violin)
Angela Yoffe (piano)
rec. December 2012, Sendesaal Bremen, Germany
BIS BIS-SACD-2032 [63:02]

This release turned up just as James Ehnes’s superb two disc ‘Complete Works for Violin’ (see review) has been receiving massive plaudits. With this being the 60th anniversary of 1953 these coincidences are always likely, but unless SACD sound is a deciding factor when purchasing such releases this does put Vadim Gluzman and Angela Yoffe straight against stiff competition.
By any standards these are all terrific performances, recorded in stunning sound - up quite close and personal, but with plenty of space around the instruments, inviting us in rather than blowing us off our seats. The BIS balance puts the piano on a more equal footing than that with Chandos, where the violin is a little closer in feel, though not to the extent that it covers the piano. Ehnes has a fine parlando feel in the first movement of the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, which heightens the emotion in a part of the piece which can sometimes sound a little static. Vadim Gluzman has this and greater eloquence, giving even passages of restraint an emotional weight which carries us forward into realms of ever increasing intensity. Ehnes is more abstract, which has its own strengths, but which keeps this first movement as more of a prelude rather than a powerful statement in its own right. The drier Chandos acoustic is less favourable to the chunky notes which throw us straight into the deep end of the Allegro brusco, played with greater on-the-edge string-grabbing heft by Gluzman. The theme at 1:07 becomes a dramatic moment here as if the entire piece has been building to this point, and Gluzman and Yoffe hold us in a grip of staggering intensity. For all its fine qualities, Ehnes and Armstrong’s performance is somewhat blown out of the water by Gluzman and Yoffe, whose Andante in this piece is meltingly beautiful, the muted violin having a nicer tone than Ehnes, Yoffe’s arabesques in the piano and the deeper sonority in the bass line phrases also having a greater expressive effect. The final Allegrissimo is hugely exciting in both performances, Ehnes and Armstong being swifter by an appreciable margin, but Gluzman/Yoffe able to muster massive sonorities and greater degrees of contrast for the more lyrical passages as a result.
For us flute players the popularity of the Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D Major Op. 94bis will always be something of a sore point, but it is such good music that, in the end, who cares what it’s played on. Once again it is Gluzman and Ehnes in competition, but the comments with regard to the first sonata are equally valid in this case. Ehnes and Armstrong are excellent, but Gluzman and Yoffe are just so much more beefy, more involving. Again it comes back to emotion against abstraction - Ehnes and Armstrong technically brilliant and musically sensitive, but Gluzman and Yoffe conjuring a considerable extra layer of poetry and empathetic impact. Little extra touches of weight on certain notes or harmonies, a little more detail in the articulation, a few degrees more breath and freedom in the music all adding up and making the big difference in the end. There are of course other competitors in this field, and that with Isabelle van Keulen and Ronald Brautigam on Challenge Classics (see review) comes from the same Sendesaal acoustic as this BIS recording. I’ve only been able to listen to this online and it does sound like an excellent release, also a Chandos-beater in these pieces but to my ears still not quite displaying the same degree of convincing musical depth and weight as Gluzman/Yoffe. Keulen and Brautigam tend to slightly swifter tempi which have their own excitement, but it is that sense of every note and phrase conveying its own message, like the sentences in an intimate letter, which makes this BIS recording a touch more special. Take the tender Andante of Op.94 bis, which both duos take at roughly similar, fairly swift and suitably unsentimental tempi. Keulen and Brautigam have fine phrasing and dynamics, but when compared to Gluzman and Yoffe appear almost just to be charging ahead and missing the points the latter find so precious. Without disturbing the flow of the music Gluzman holds onto notes a fraction longer here and there, Yoffe in perfect synchronization, introducing a sense of nostalgic yearning right from the start and delivering that sense of narrative which I always bang on about, but which I all too rarely find in actual fact. That second section is a bit like our characters have decided to go for a walk in the park on Challenge Classics, where at 1:05 our BIS artists manage to establish a magical change of mood, celestial and poetic - creating all kinds of flitting images in the mind rather than conjuring amused feet sweeping through autumn leaves.
The Three Pieces from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ open with ‘that music off of BBC’s The Apprentice’, Montagues and Capulets performed with maximum power and a sense or real orchestral thrust from pianist Angela Yoffe. Prokofiev wrote all too few works for violin and piano, and this arrangement by D. Grjunes is a fine addition to the repertoire, also including the Dance of the Girls with Lilies and Masks.
I’ve admired Vadim Gluzman’s playing before, and all of his recordings on the BIS label can safely be recommended. It’s tricky to be definitive, but of the more recent recordings of these sonatas I have heard this would be the one for me. There are others. Ilya Grubert and Matti Raekallio on Ondine is potent stuff, but Grubert is a bit shouty on some accents and there are too many unappealing moments to make this a real contender. You might come across Joseph Szigeti and Joseph Levine’s historical performance as a digital download from Past Classics, and while this is of great interest I can’t bear Szigeti’s wobbly vibrato, and the balance between violin and piano in the Second Sonata is terminally in favour of the violin, which sounds as if Szigeti is playing while sitting on your lap. So yes, with stunning SACD sound, everything in its favour and with musical qualities which make this a recording to relish for years to come, I’m going to stick my neck out and say Vadim Gluzman and Angela Yoffe are the best for these two Prokofiev masterpieces.
Dominy Clements