I have been following the recordings of violinist Vadim Gluzman for some time, primarily because, as I have previously put it, he is “not content to settle into the ‘middle-brow’ groove of the ‘standard repertoire.’” This can be the case even when a familiar composer is involved. Thus, while his latest BIS recording, released at the end of last month, consists entirely of music by Sergei Prokofiev, it is particularly interesting for including that composer’s “first” violin sonata, which has received far less attention than his “second.”
Those scare quotes are a reflection of the rather interesting story behind the genesis of these two sonatas. They were composed during Russia’s involvement in the Second World War. Thus, they are products of the same context that yielded Prokofiev’s three “War Sonatas” for piano, Opus 82 in A major (1940), Opus 83 in B-flat major (1942), and Opus 84 in B-flat major (1944). Chronologically, the two violin sonatas envelop this time-frame; but only one of them may deserve to be called a “war sonata.”
That is the “first” of the two sonatas. Prokofiev began it in 1938; but it was not completed until 1946, after the war had ended. Within this “window,” Prokofiev composed his second violin sonata, although “composed” may not be the proper verb. This work is listed as Opus 94 bis. The original Opus 94 was a flute sonata in D major, written in 1942. Prokofiev subsequently “transformed” (using the verb from the Wikipedia description of this composition) into a violin sonata to satisfy David Oistrakh; and that transformation involved reworking some of the content to serve better the capabilities of a violin. That version was completed in 1943.
Oistrakh would subsequently premiere both sonatas, the “second” in 1944 and the “first” shortly after its completion (with generous coaching from Prokofiev). Considering what conditions were like in Russia in 1943, the “second” sonata is remarkably affable, as it had been in its flute version. My guess is that Oistrakh gave it far more exposure than was given to the “first” sonata (although he performed the first and third movements of that “first” sonata at Prokofiev’s funeral). Oistrakh’s promotion, in turn, propagated out to other violinists; and one still encounters it with a fair amount of frequency on the recital circuit.
Nevertheless, regardless of their different rhetorical stances, these two sonatas are stylistically close in many ways. It is thus highly valuable to listen to a violinist of Gluzman’s character perform them side-by-side. Once again, his accompanist is pianist Angela Yoffe. I had to resist typing “accomplice” in that last sentence, because Yoffe performs as one who has followed Gluzman willingly, if not enthusiastically, on so many of his departures from that “beaten path” of “standard repertoire.” Between the two of them, the listener can thus enjoy the “discovery” of the less performed Opus 80, allowing it to provide a new listening context for the more familiar Opus 94 bis.
This recording concludes with three “encore” selections, arrangements of three dances from Prokofiev’s Opus 64 Romeo and Juliet ballet by D. Grjunes and published in Russia by Sikorski. Grjunes prepared these arrangements from the orchestral score, rather than from the ten excerpts that Prokofiev himself prepared for solo piano and published as his Opus 75. (Jascha Heifetz used at least one of these piano versions to prepare his own arrangement for encore purposes.)
These selections provide a pointed reminder that this ballet, whose music has become a favorite among both balletomanes and concert-goers alike, was also conceived and realized during Nazi domination of Germany (not to mention much of Europe). It received its first performance in Brno in Czechoslovakia on December 30, 1938, exactly three months after the Munich Agreement, under which, for all intents and purposes, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as a country. Prokofiev’s music thus assumed an ironic edge, not at all intended by the composer but entirely consistent with the darkness of his Opus 80.