Recital Review



Prokofiev Revisited

February 12, 2006 - Durham, NC:


It is not often that you can cover the complete output in a certain genre by a prolific composer in a single afternoon and get home in time for dinner.

Despite his extensive roster of compositions, Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev wrote only one original work for violin and piano, his Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80, and two transcriptions of other works: the Five Melodies for Violin and Piano, Op. 35bis – transcribed from Five Melodies without Words, Op. 35, for voice and piano, and the Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 94a, transcribed from the Flute Sonata, Op. 94.

Violinist Eric Pritchard of the Ciompi Quartet, together with pianist Randall Love of the Duke music faculty, performed this entire catalogue of works for violin and piano, revealing the numerous faces of the composer.

In the original Five Melodies, Prokofiev used the voice as an instrument, exploring its possibilities against a piano accompaniment. In the transcription, Pritchard played the Melodies as if they were sung with a warm, rounded sound, sensitively modulated with periodic use of a mute. Love kept the piano voice properly subdued, to give the violin free rein.

The Violin Sonata No. 1 had a long and significant gestation, covering the entire duration of World War II and its immediate aftermath. Prokofiev began working on it in 1938 but did not finish it until 1946. Its tone is dark, harsh and brooding, the violin playing much of the time in its lower register, as does the piano, as if imitating Russian church bells. One is tempted to interpret it in terms of the harsh conditions the composer found himself in, both personally through the Stalinist persecution, and as his country suffered the horrors of the War. Although it is always tempting to read extra-musical meanings into works of composers from the Soviet era, Prokofiev's harsh style goes back to his early days, before the Revolution. Although not one to wear his heart on his sleeve with symbolic musical messages like his contemporary Shostakovich, the mood of the piece and the sheer difficulty in finishing it certainly permits us to understand its harshness in context. Pritchard and Love infused their performance with energy and the edginess befitting the work.

Ironically, in the course of working on the f minor Sonata No. 1, Prokofiev completed the Sonata in D major for flute and piano (1943) as well as its transcription for violin, with the advice of famed violinist David Oistrakh (1944). It inhabits an entirely different musical world from the f minor Sonata; it is classical in form with its themes and harmonies closely resembling those of the Fifth Symphony, composed during the same year. It is as sunny and cheerful as the previous work is dark. Pritchard and Love gave it a sizzling performance which demonstrated once again that this composition works better in its violin transcription than in its original flute version.