Shostakovich and Prokofiev: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Sarah Chang, violin; Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI 0946 3 46053 2.

You'd think the First Violin Concertos by two of twentieth-century Russia's premier composers would be pretty much alike, especially as both Shostakovich and Prokofiev before him were in the vanguard of the modernist music movement. Wrong. The works couldn't more dissimilar.

Dmitri Shostakovich completed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1948 as a protest against Soviet repression, among other things, but nobody performed it publicly until 1955 because the Soviet government branded the composer an enemy of the people for writing music that did not conform to the state's puritanical tastes. The Concerto is understandably harsh, beginning with a dark, ominous bass passage, followed by vigorous sections of bottled-up rage, a somber Andante, a relatively ferocious Cadenza, and an energetic Burlesque finale.

Sergei Prokofiev completed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1917 but had to wait for the Russian Revolution and its aftermath to hear it performed in 1923. So much for similarities. Where the Shostakovich work is fairly long--five movements and almost thirty-seven minutes--the Prokofiev is brief--three movements and about twenty-one minutes. More to the point, the Prokofiev concerto is as light and airy as you could imagine, almost wispy in places, and filled with a lilting playfulness, lyricism, and good cheer.

So, you might say one piece is a tragedy, the other a romantic comedy, and that's how violinist Sarah Chang plays them, pointing up the differences in temperament and style as much as possible. My own reaction is that she is more successful in the Prokofiev than in the Shostakovich, where her performance of the music doesn't seem quite as markedly pointed or biting as I've heard it interpreted. But I doubt that anybody is going to notice, let alone complain, especially not with such impeccable support by Sir Simon Rattle and his Berlin orchestra.

Nor can one complain about EMI's sound, which the jewel box says derives from live recordings but which surely don't appear to be live. There is no audience noise whatsoever that I noticed (understand, I was caught up in the music most of the time), no applause, and no close or distant miking. The orchestra spreads out smoothly and naturally behind the soloist, presenting a most realistic sound stage. It's a fine production all the way around.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa