Tuesday 13 December 2011

Prokofiev's Violin Concertos from Pavel Berman

Violin Concertos
Sonata for two violins

Pavel Berman (violin)/Anna Tifu (violin, Op.56)
Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana/Andrey Boreyko

Dynamic CDS 676

He may have been a pianist, but something about the violin excited Prokofiev enough for him to produce some of the instrument’s finest works.  Not much of the twentieth century’s repertoire for the violin can match the dazzling colour of the First Violin Concerto, completed in 1917 but not performed until the dust had settled after the Russian revolution, or the gravity and rhythmic energy of the Second, composed in 1935, shortly before Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union to assume the role of most favoured composer.  Pavel Berman’s attractive coupling of the two is complemented by the Sonata for two violins of 1932, an ingenious and witty work much favoured by the father-son partnership of David and Igor Oistrakh.

In keeping the menu an all Prokofiev affair, Berman’s Dynamic recording would initially seem a more appealing proposition than some previous sets featuring both concertos.  Maxim Vengerov’s recordings with Rostropovich were at one time available with the Glazunov concerto, while Decca’s CD rerelease of Kyung Wha Chung’s 1970s performances came with the Stravinsky concerto.  Both of these venerable sets offer more persuasive performances, however, and while there are still things to be enjoyed in Berman’s playing, it was a disc that I found myself liking less as it progressed.    

The First Concerto begins promisingly.  Berman sets an unusually swift tempo, lending a dancing and dotted character to the opening melody, but this creates problems when he reaches the faster central section.  There’s nowhere to go and little contrast to be found, and this lack of care over the pacing continues across both concertos and, ultimately, everything feels rather generalised.  There are fine moments, though, particularly the first moment’s tranquil coda, captured very well by Berman and the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana.

Berman’s performance of the Second Concerto is also a mixed affair, with the first movement proceeding quite carefully; indeed, one moment seems to find Berman struggling with the basics of getting his fingers round Prokofiev’s passage work.  The Andante suffers from more generalised pacing, stretching it out and making it feel more repetitive than it ought to. But the finale is a success, with Berman finding more grit and swagger for the unhinged rustic dance.  In the Sonata for Two Violins, Berman is well matched with partner Anna Tifu, though the recording here lacks body.

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