Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances.  Genevieve Laurenceau, violin; Tugan Sokhiev, Orchestre National du Capital de Toulouse. Naive V 5256.

Now, I know what you're probably wondering. You're wondering what's for dinner tonight. And how you are going to watch that final episode of "The Chicago Code" with your mother-in-law visiting. And, maybe, just maybe, you're wondering what the two pieces of music on this CD have to do with each other.

The connections are tenuous, but they're close enough. For example, both Prokofiev and Rachmaninov were Russian. They were contemporaries of each other, Rachmaniov a few years older. They were both pianists and composers. And they created the two works represented here within five years of one another. Personally, I prefer discs that couple works by the same composer. It makes finding things easier. But at least I can understand the reasoning behind Naive Records making the coupling they did.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, in 1935, just before he returned from a self-imposed exile from Russia and while turning to what he called a "new simplicity" in his music. The Concerto begins with a lonely violin solo that gets only a touch hectic before settling down to a more plaintive tone. Prokofiev was obviously softening his earlier dissonant style and relying more on melody. It couldn't have hurt that the Russian musical censors of the day probably appreciated his new attitude as well.

Ms. Laurenceau's violin takes flight about halfway through the first movement and remains in a soaring mode for most of the work. Then, in the slow movement we get a lovely Andante assai, with a gently flowing, lilting melody played above a sweet, rhythmic arpeggio accompaniment. It's among the most-charming things Prokofiev ever wrote, and again Ms. Laurenceau handles it with authority. The final movement closes the show in a pulsating, waltz-like mood, ever more-pronounced percussion elements overtaking the Gypsy swirls of the violin. Ms. Laurenceau gives the instrument a workout as the music comes to a sudden, climactic end.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), his name on the disc Americanized as Sergey Rachmaninoff, would make the Symphonic Dances (1840) his final composition, although he lived several years thereafter. He drew upon material from many years before, an abandoned ballet called The Scythians, for his somewhat menacing music. The Dances begin with a big, militaristic introduction before developing a more restrained, sometimes melancholy, atmosphere. Always the Romantic, even to the end, Rachmaninov infuses the three movements with a wealth of voluptuous melodies, which conductor Tugan Sokhiev draws out eloquently, expressively, and expansively, despite some relatively fleet tempos.

The only minor detail about Sokhiev's recording of the Symphonic Dances is that it goes head to head with several other superior recordings, those of Andre Previn and the London Symphony, who outshine Sokhiev in sheer delivery, and Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra, whose Reference Recording is just that, a state-of-the-art reference recording. Nevertheless, Sokhiev's performance is worthy of mention by their side.

Naive recorded the two performances in July, 2010, in La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, France; and, luckily for us, they did not record it live. While the sound in the Violin Concerto is a tad forward and the violin rather prominently placed, there is otherwise a good blend of instruments involved. The orchestral sound is never too edgy or bright, although it is slightly flat dimensionally. There is a moderately wide stereo spread, a modest dynamic range, and reasonably acceptable impact. However, frequency extremes, especially at the bass end, might have been better extended.

Needless to say, the Symphonic Dances are more dynamic, and the sound opens up considerably more than it does in the Concerto, which only has to concentrate on highlighting the violin. In the Dances, we get a bigger, bolder, more-dimensional sound, even though, as I said, it doesn't really compete with the sonic quality of the Reference Recordings disc, which is in a class by itself.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa