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Hyperion Records

CDA67514 - Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas
The Violin (1916) by Juan Gris (1887-1927)
Kunstmuseum, Basel / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: July 2013
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: July 2014
Total duration: 60 minutes 43 seconds

'From the austere opening bars of the First Violin Sonata, one of Prokofiev’s towering masterpieces, it’s clear that this violin-and-piano duo is capable of the subtlest interplay. Steven Osborne is the lion, or the demon, that needs taming by Alina Ibragimova’s fiddler, dancing—sometimes ever so frailly—on the volcano. There are revelations in the outer movements: never have I heard the violin’s tentative B minor melodising as so much the heart of the preludial Andante assai—it's equal in effect to what Prokofiev described as the 'wind in the graveyard’ rushings which appear at the end of that movement and return so strikingly at the end of the work—and the way the scherzo's abrasive insistence returns in the piano bass of the finale is truly hair-raising' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'For her new Prokofiev release Ibragimova teams up with Steven Osborne in one of those astute mergers of talent for which Hyperion is well known. Osborne revealed his penchant for Prokofiev last year in the Visions fugitives and Sarcasms that accompanied his compelling, multi-faceted interpretation of Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition (CDA67896). In the two Prokofiev violin sonatas, his instincts are just as finely honed … performances of depth of perception and strength of character … shifting kaleidoscopes in the piano part and the subtle vocal inflections of the violin' (The Daily Telegraph) » More

'The dark moods of the F minor Sonata … are relished to the full by both musicians: the range of colours and the precision of the rhythmic articulation are two notable features of a performance that grips the listener from start to finish, thanks to its unflinching conviction as well as its consummate skill. It’s a magnificent performance. The D major Sonata (originally written for flute and piano and transcribed at Oistrakh’s request) is even better. The attention to detail, to subtle nuances, is breathtaking, and the overall drive and momentum of the performance results in a reading as fine as any I’ve heard, in sound that is better than most. It’s interesting to compare Ibragimova and Osborne with Kremer and Argerich (DG). While the latter is a magnificent partnership by any standards … I get a feeling of even greater involvement and excitement from the new Hyperion disc … this Prokofiev disc is a triumphant achievement, recommended without reservation' (International Record Review) » More

'Prokofiev's two violin sonatas make a stark juxtaposition. The F minor is a big-boned, dark-hued expression of feeling that can be taken as mourning for the depredations of Soviet terror; the D major is one of those seraphically contented neoclassical excursions that adorn mid-20th-century music. They are played here with an intense-feeling virtuosity, Ibragimova equally magnificent in restraint—as when executing those 'graveyard' scales slipping in during the F minor—and when belting out, say, the second movement of that work, as strongly contrasted with its predecessor as the whole sonata is with its successor' (The Sunday Times) » More

'There is something deeply disturbing, and at the same time uplifting, in the violin music of Sergei Prokofiev. Such extremes are encapsulated in this captivating recording of both Violin Sonatas and the Five Melodies by Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova and Scots pianist Steven Osborne. Their reading of the F minor Violin Sonata combines angst-ridden weight with vigorous spirit and blissful moments of timeless beauty. The Five Melodies offer a deliciously poetic and nuanced transition to the brighter skies of the Sonata No 2, a work transcribed from the Flute Sonata, which this duo present with radiant self-assurance' (The Scotsman) » More

Violin Sonatas
Andante assai  [6'24]
Allegro brusco  [6'17]
Andante  [7'13]
Allegrissimo  [6'57]
Andante  [1'52]
Moderato  [7'08]
Scherzo: Presto  [4'22]
Andante  [3'32]
Allegro con brio  [7'01]

‘One of the biggest joys of the London concert scene in recent years has been the opening up of the musical world of Alina Ibragimova, a world that seems to know no bounds … here she was partnered by Steven Osborne—a meeting of minds and talents that had that paradoxical effect, common to the best collaborations, of two strongly contrasted individuals speaking with one voice. The First Sonata really let fly … quiet but powerfully sustained in the slow music, a fount of uncorked energy in the more frequent fast sections, Ibragimova dug deep into Prokofiev’s aching heart, profiling the jagged motifs of the Allegro brusco second movement as vividly as she tore into the syncopated rhythms of the battling finale—every phrase stamped with conviction and gravitas’ (Financial Times)

Hyperion is delighted to present a collaboration—an extraordinary force on the concert platform—in its first appearance on record. Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne are musicians of searing, uncompromising intelligence and intense feeling.

In his works for the violin, Prokofiev produced some of his most personal and expressive music. Both of his Violin Sonatas were written for David Oistrakh. The First was begun against the backdrop of Stalin’s Great Terror, in 1938, and one senses that he drew his inspiration from the uncharacteristically dark wells of fear, despair and bereavement which were the lot of Prokofiev and his contemporaries. The Violin Sonata No 2 in D major is of a very different character—generally sunny and carefree, though still with occasional fleeting shadows from the dark world of the First Sonata. In its original form it was a Flute Sonata, Op 94, which Prokofiev had completed in 1943. At David Oistrakh’s suggestion and with his assistance, Prokofiev transcribed this Sonata to create the Second Violin Sonata, Op 94bis.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It is remarkable that although Prokofiev never played the violin, he composed not one but several masterpieces for that instrument. Perhaps we owe this to Rheinhold Glière, who in the summer of 1902 first travelled to Sontsovka, the rural Ukrainian estate where the Prokofievs lived, to teach piano and composition to the eleven-year-old prodigy. He came armed with a violin. With Sontsovka many miles away from the nearest city, the young Prokofiev scarcely knew any instrument other than the piano. One can imagine the impression Glière made practising his violin between lessons. On several evenings Prokofiev accompanied his teacher playing Mozart sonatas, and with Glière’s encouragement even attempted to compose a violin sonata. Although Prokofiev ultimately became a pianist, it appears no accident that the violin became, after his own instrument, the medium for which Prokofiev composed some of his most personal and expressive music.

In 1915, while he was beginning to compose his First Violin Concerto, he heard the violinist Paul (Pawel) Kochanski perform Szymanowski’s pioneering Mythes with the composer at the piano. This stirred Prokofiev’s creative imagination, and he soon sought Kochanski’s collaboration in completing the concerto. In all his subsequent major violin works, Prokofiev was to work closely with several distinguished violinists: Robert Soetens for the Violin Concerto No 2, and David Oistrakh for the two violin sonatas.

Prokofiev turned to Kochanski again when transcribing his Five Songs without Words, Op 35, for violin and piano. He originally composed these late in 1920 for Nina Koshetz, the larger-than-life Russian mezzo-soprano. Prokofiev had been touring California at the time, and appears to have been inspired by the state’s natural beauty: before completing the fifth and final song he noted in his diary how he admired ‘the ocean, which at sunset shimmered with the most beautiful colours’. In Paris a little over four years later, Prokofiev was impressed by a recital by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, and considered writing a series of small violin pieces as ‘Songs without Words’. Another violinist, Cecilia Hansen, wife of one of his pianist friends from his St Petersburg Conservatory years, then demonstrated to Prokofiev that the second of the Songs without Words ‘went beautifully’ on violin. Nevertheless, Prokofiev entrusted the transcription of all five vocalises ‘not with the naïve Cecilia but with Kochanski, whose skills in this respect are fabulous’. In July 1925, accordingly, Prokofiev visited Kochanski at his home in Paris, and in just two intensive sessions of a few hours’ duration they transcribed all five songs for violin. The result, if anything, exceeds in beauty and expression the original vocalises. Prokofiev dedicated the second piece to Hansen, and the fifth piece to Szigeti, dedicating the rest of the cycle to Kochanski.

In the 1930s, profoundly homesick, Prokofiev was wooed back to Russia—by now the USSR ruled by Stalin—with official promises that he would enjoy not only such privileges as being allowed to tour regularly in the West, but would also play a leading role in rebuilding Soviet music after the ravages of the cultural revolution of the late 1920s. Thus, in 1936, he finally settled in Moscow with his wife and two young sons.

Within less than a year, Stalin’s so-called ‘Great Terror’ was unleashed, involving several million arrests by the NKVD secret police, most famously of Shostakovich’s patron Marshal Mikhaíl Tukhachevsky. Several colleagues of Prokofiev’s were also taken. On 20 April 1937 Vladimir Mutnykh, general director of the Bolshoi Theatre who had commissioned Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, was arrested. Adrian Piotrovsky, co-librettist of Romeo and Juliet, followed on 10 July 1937. Nataliya Sats, who had commissioned Peter and the Wolf and so successfully narrated it, was arrested on 21 August. Nikolai Zhilyayev, a composer, scholar and staunch champion of Prokofiev’s work, was arrested on 3 November. Apart from Nataliya Sats (who, after time in a labour camp, was released in 1942, though she was not allowed to return to Moscow until 1958, five years after Prokofiev’s death), none of these former colleagues was ever seen again: it is now known that they were all shot just months after their arrest.

It was against this deeply troubled backdrop that Prokofiev began work on the Violin Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 80, in 1938. Significantly, unlike Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto, none of its themes was composed before Prokofiev’s return to the Soviet Union; rather, one senses that he drew his inspiration from the uncharacteristically dark wells of fear, despair and bereavement which were the lot of Prokofiev and his contemporaries under Stalin’s Great Terror. Possibly in an attempt to distance himself from the trauma represented by the Sonata’s unfamiliarly dark emotional terrain, Prokofiev originally wrote its first movement entirely in strictly alternating metres of 3/4 and 4/4.

Having completed this version of the first movement and substantially composed the second, Prokofiev put the Sonata to one side to score Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky. With further interruptions posed by the Second World War and other compositional projects, Prokofiev did not resume work on the Sonata until 1943; even then, he confessed to his friend Nikolay Myaskovsky, he found the work ‘difficult’, and apparently laid it aside once more to compose his Fifth Symphony. Indeed, even before he resumed work on the F minor Sonata he completed his Violin Sonata No 2 in D major in 1944. It seems that working on that Second Sonata, essentially a transcription of the Flute Sonata, Op 94 (composed in 1943), undertaken with the help of David Oistrakh, finally spurred Prokofiev to complete the dark F minor Sonata.

Oistrakh’s friendship with Prokofiev had begun in the mid-1930s, living as he did in the same apartment block as the Prokofievs in Chkalov Street and sharing the composer’s enthusiasm for chess. According to Prokofiev’s eldest son, Sviatoslav, Oistrakh visited their apartment to try through sections of the F minor Sonata. This would have been in the late-1930s, as Prokofiev left his family, and therefore the apartment, on 15 March 1941 to live with the young writer Mira Mendelson. If Sviatoslav, who was seventeen when his father left, was correct in recalling that it was the Violin Sonata his father played with Oistrakh, rather than the First Violin Concerto which Oistrakh performed under Prokofiev’s baton on 22 October 1939, this would mean Oistrakh was closely involved with the Sonata from the first years of its creation, rather than—as is usually assumed—from 1943. This raises another possibility—that Oistrakh, who is known to have encouraged Prokofiev to transcribe his Flute Sonata into the D major Violin Sonata in 1943, did so knowing of the F minor Violin Sonata on which Prokofiev had got ‘stuck’. Might Oistrakh, perhaps, have cannily calculated that by making this transcription Prokofiev would then be encouraged to complete the F minor Violin Sonata?

And yet, although the F minor Sonata was ultimately dedicated to David Oistrakh, Prokofiev clearly composed it to assuage an inner trauma. Oistrakh recalled that when rehearsing the Sonata, the composer told him that the rushing scalic passages in the first and final movements should sound ‘like the wind in a graveyard’. Oistrakh added: ‘After remarks of this kind the whole spirit of the sonata assumed a deeper significance for us.’

It seems indeed significant that when Prokofiev resumed the work in 1943, his revisions to the first movement included the addition of those rushing scalic passages, marked freddo, which hitherto had not existed in the work. Prokofiev, in talking of those scales, appears also to have been alluding to Anton Rubinstein’s famous characterization of the finale of Chopin’s B flat minor Piano Sonata: ‘a night wind blowing over graves in a cemetery’. Yet—unlike the anguished chromaticism of Chopin’s—Prokofiev’s rushing scales appear serene, as if representing a haven removed from the tormented and sometimes brutal style of the rest of the Sonata. While it is unlikely that Prokofiev knew the precise fate of those colleagues who had been arrested in 1937 (and those named earlier are only the ones we know of), it seems likely that the F minor Sonata over which Prokofiev laboured for so long was intended as a covert yet loving memorial to all those, including several of his colleagues, who had been wiped from official Stalinist history. In the final year or so of his life, Prokofiev drew up an annotated list of his compositions; significantly, in writing of his F minor Sonata, Prokofiev elaborated on Rubinstein’s original description by referring to ‘an abandoned graveyard’, which itself suggests he had in mind deaths less immediate than the obvious casualties of war when he completed the work in the summer of 1946.

The Violin Sonata No 2 in D major is of a very different character—generally sunny and carefree, though still with occasional fleeting shadows from the dark world of the First Sonata. In its original form it was a Flute Sonata, Op 94, which Prokofiev had completed in 1943 while in Perm to discuss staging his ballet Cinderella with the evacuated Kirov company. Its themes, according to his biographer Israel Nestyev, were originally sketched before the war, and were inspired by the French flute player Georges Barrère. At David Oistrakh’s suggestion and with his assistance, Prokofiev transcribed this Sonata to create the Second Violin Sonata, Op 94bis.

The opening movement harks back to the neoclassical style of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 5 of 1923 (which in turn appears to have inspired Poulenc’s Flute Sonata of 1956–7) and of Cinderella. The second movement scherzo is initially light and capricious, but the piano part in particular introduces an increasingly sardonic tone, and the movement does not so much finish as come to an abrupt halt. There are further hints of disquieted emotions in the third movement, which has some thematic material in common with the third movement of Prokofiev’s then not yet completed First Violin Sonata. It also contains a striking passage of bluesy rumination: an admirer of jazz, Prokofiev at one stage held semi-clandestine meetings with fellow aficionados in his Moscow apartment in which he played recordings he had brought back from his foreign tours. Ultimately, though, it ends with an upbeat finale which includes in a central interlude one of Prokofiev’s sweetest melodies (which Poulenc, again, would recall in his Oboe Sonata, dedicated to Prokofiev’s memory).

Daniel Jaffé © 2014

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