A beguilingly varied program that’s a showcase for violinist, composer, and orchestra alike.
Rosanne Philippens Plays PROKOVIEV = PROKOFIEV – Violin Concert No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63; Violin Solo Sonata in D Major, Op. 115; Five Melodies, Op. 35bis; March from “The Love for Three Oranges,” Op. 33 (arr. Heifetz); Piano Sonata No. 4, Second Movement: Andante, Op. 39bis (arr. for orchestra by Prokofiev) ‒ Rosanne Philippens, violin / Julien Quentin, piano / Sinfonieorchester St. Galen / Otto Tausk ‒ Channel Classics CCS 39517 (11/17/2017) [distrib. by Harmonia mundi], 65:23 *****:
It’s not unusual for recordings to pair one or other of the Prokofiev violin concertos with one or more of the sonatas. And Five Melodies often shows up on recordings of the sonatas. The current recording, however, offers even more variety, with an arrangement of the ever-popular “March” from The Love for Three Oranges and—surprise!—a turn by the orchestra alone in Prokofiev’s own arrangement of the slow movement from his Fourth Piano Sonata. To boot, we thus get a sampling of Prokofiev from his earlier years of exile to his years in the Soviet Union.
Some listeners were puzzled when Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto (completed in 1917, its first performance delayed by the war) debuted in Paris in 1923. The spikiness of the composer’s Second and Third Piano Concertos were hardly in evidence, French composer Georges going so far as to label the violin concerto “Mendelssohnian.” That’s a stretch, of course, especially when you hear the more raucous passages in the second-movement scherzo and the sardonic, very-Prokofievian pas de deux for violin and tuba in the final pages of the finale. But the concerto is predominantly lyrical and not greatly removed from the sound world Prokofiev created in his Second Violin Concerto (1935), during a mellower phase of his creative life. Though begun in Paris, the Second Concerto was completed after Prokofiev returned for good to the Soviet Union. It was immediately preceded by Romeo and Juliet, another work whose “new simplicity” was designed to win the approval of Soviet audiences (though the concerto was premiered in Madrid). Both works share a rich melodic tapestry, any modernist elements tampered by a tender lyricism. In the concerto, this is especially evident in the singing second movement marked Andante assai. However, there is still more than enough vinegar in its makeup to cause you to think “Prokofiev.” The last movement works itself up to a motoric frenzy, featuring swift scalar passages for the violin and another odd-couple ballet, this time the bass drum as the violin’s partner.
Fast forward to 1947, and we find Prokofiev even more intent on ingratiating himself with the Soviets, especially Soviet authorities. Like Kabelevsky and Khachaturian, Prokofiev increasingly turned his attention to music for young musicians and audiences. The Violin Solo Sonata was intended to be performed either by a single youngster or an ensemble of junior violinists. There are enough technical challenges in the work in the way of double-stops, spiccato, wide leaps, and fevered scales to challenge even seasoned players, let alone a band of young violinists. But it seems to pose no challenges for Rosanne Philippens, who plays it with dash and real affection.
Prokofiev wrote Five Melodies while touring California in 1920, at the same time he was working on The Love for Three Oranges. It shares some of the acerbic wit the composer injected into his opera. Given Prokofiev’s operatic frame of mind, it makes sense that the work was originally written for the voice, specifically mezzo-soprano Nina Koschetz, and intended as a wordless vocalise. In 1925, Prokofiev arranged Five Melodies for violin and piano—a successful repurposing of work that would probably have gotten little traction as a vocal piece. The writing for the violin is, well, very violinistic, with a panoply of double-stops, harmonics, pizzicatos, and the like.
Finally, it’s instructive to hear the two arrangements, one by Jacha Heifetz, who translates the swagger and slight air of menace in Prokofiev’s “March” very effectively, and one by Prokofiev himself. The Fourth Piano Sonata (1917) is more spikily characteristic of the Prokofiev of the teens and twenties than the First Violin Concerto and was apparently a favorite of the composer, who recorded it in the 1930s. His 1935 arrangement of the slow movement for full orchestra is true to the volatile nature of the original, which starts (marked serioso) calmly enough but with an undercurrent of unease, rising to several loud, anxious pinnacles. There are, as well, passages of dreamy introspection, marked tranquillo, before we return to the somewhat troubled atmosphere of the opening. Prokofiev’s orchestration is notable for its subtle use of color: high strings for those dreamy passages, brief but telling interjections from the percussion, and especially the sense of queasiness that the writing for the low brass imparts.
Rosanne Philippen’s contribution to the program is more than praiseworthy. She has an impeccable tone and an unimpeachable technique that guides her through the thornier passages of the violin concerto and Five Melodies. Here, Julliard-trained Julien Quentin is a most able partner, tackling a piano part in which Prokofiev shows no mercy. Then there’s the Sinfonieorhcester St. Galen. I once worked for a company that had offices in the German-speaking Swiss town of St. Galen, but I never imagined they had such a fine little band—respectful partners in the concerto but, under the sure hand of their chief conductor, really coming into their own in the Fourth Piano Sonata arrangement. With an excellent recording set down in the orchestra’s concert hall, Tonhalle St. Gallen, this disc is just about a must-have for fans of Prokofiev.