Notes and Editorial Reviews
5 Melodies for Violin and Piano.
Mikhail Schmidt (vn); David Tonkonogui (vc); Judith Cohen (pn)
CONCINNITY 32712 (62:10)
Here on a single CD are three of Prokofiev’s more popular works. It was in late December 1920, while visiting California, that Prokofiev wrote the set of
Five Songs Without Words
for Russian soprano Nina Koshetz. Back in Paris, the
composer decided to revisit the songs in 1925, arranging them as a set of miniatures for violin and piano, and it’s in this guise that they’re most often heard today.
A favorite recording of the Melodies has been a 1995 Erato CD with Vadim Repin and Boris Berezovksy, which appears to be still available. A more recent 2004 version on Canary Classics by Gil and Orli Shaham is also superbly well done. Both of those recordings also contain fine readings of Prokoviev’s two very difficult violin sonatas. I can’t say that Mikhail Schmidt outshines either of those two violinists, but he can certainly hold his own with them; in any case, this is a very different Prokofiev program.
Written between 1915 and 1917, the 20 diminutive pieces that make up Prokofiev’s
for solo piano come at a time of great inner conflict for the composer. He saw no future for his progressive music in post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia, and by 1918 he’d made up his mind to leave his homeland for the U.S. He arrived in San Francisco and spent two none-too-successful or happy years in the States, finally leaving for Paris in 1920.
contains some of Prokofiev’s most advanced writing to date. In an interesting University of Nebraska doctoral dissertation, Steven Moellering compares the work to a number of compositions written by other composers prior to the
, citing specific works by Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, Berg, and Bartók, from which Prokofiev may have borrowed certain scales, harmonic building blocks, and rhythmic patterns for his
, which range from a mere 28 seconds to 2:10. It’s hard to know, of course, whether Prokofiev would have been familiar with or had access to all of this music, but curiously, the one composer Moellering doesn’t mention in his thesis is Anton Webern, a number of whose atomized miniatures, such as the Six Bagatelles for String Quartet (1913) and Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano (1914), also predate Prokofiev’s
. To be sure, Prokofiev’s pieces are not as fragmented or fragmentary as Webern’s, nor do they abandon tonality, but they can be highly dissonant, rhythmically irregular, and more Expressionist than Impressionist in style.
There appear to be quite a few recordings of
, including a 1930s Naxos Historical CD with the composer himself at the piano. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard it, nor for that matter most of the others. A quick check of my Prokofiev collection yielded only two finds, one that can’t be used for comparison purposes because it’s a version arranged for strings by Yuri Bashment and played by the Moscow Soloists, and the other, part of a two-disc EMI set of the complete piano concertos with pianist Michel Béroff. Most of that set was recorded in 1974, but Béroff recorded
in 1981. In my opinion, Béroff has a special affinity for Prokofiev, and the 30-year-old recording has held up well, but Judith Cohen on the present disc is equally adept in these cryptic pieces, finding more in them than just their bitter acrimony. She scampers through the fifth piece (Molto giocoso) with an impish grin, and makes the 10th piece (Ridicolosamente) sound not just ridiculous, which it is, but puts a spin on it that captures the sense of an arrogant dandy repeatedly slipping and falling, then picking himself up, dusting himself off, and with his nose held high in the air, imagining that no one has noticed what a foppish fool he is. But there’s also a strange, nostalgic sadness to the concluding number (Lento) that Cohen zeros in on with great sensitivity.
David Tonkonogui also faces competition in another of Prokofiev’s oft-recorded works, his late Cello Sonata, op. 119, which since it was premiered in 1950 by Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter has become a staple of the cello repertoire. By the time Prokofiev came to write the piece in 1949, much of his musically biting sarcasm had been tamed. In fact, some critics have called it “a mellow, somewhat spineless work.”
The composer, permanently back in the Soviet Union since 1935, had enjoyed quite a lot of success during the war years, even being awarded Stalin prizes for his Seventh and Eighth piano sonatas. But things would sour for him in 1948 when he was denounced, along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Miaskovksy, for writing music that was “too cosmopolitan and formalist.” Yet here, one year later, we find Prokofiev writing the cello sonata, one of his most tuneful, lyrical, and apparently optimistic scores.
As is the case with violinist Mikhail Schmidt in the Five Melodies, I can’t say that cellist David Tonkonogui surpasses a number of others in this well-represented-on-disc cello sonata, but in direct comparison to Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich’s tension-laden live 2003 account and Truls Mørk and Lars Vogt’s somewhat more relaxed, reflective reading, Tonkonogui seems to steer a middle course, reminding us that there’s a degree of angst underlying the music’s softer surfaces. I like this approach because it brings to the sonata a deeper emotional complexity than it’s sometimes accorded.
As a grouping of expertly and thoughtfully played admired Prokofiev pieces, this is a most satisfying and strongly recommended release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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