Prokofiev could only be sure of trumping his old friend Stravinsky in the role of executant - he was an excellent pianist - so it is paradoxical that his two violin concertos should be at least as impressive as the five works he composed for his own instrument. The first Violin Concerto occupies a special place in his output. The product of 1917, the year of Revolutions, this is music that has no truck with the spirit of the age - which is perhaps why Stravinsky had such a soft spot for it. At its belated premiere in Paris, October 1923, its magical lucidity was generally found insufficiently novel - Georges Auric discerned traces of "Mendelssohnism" in the piece - and it was only after Joseph Szigeti had taken it up that it began to win the fame it deserved.
Prokofiev's score is remote from conventional expectations of Romantic and virtuoso display. There is here a vein of fairy-tale unreality more reminiscent of Ravel or Szymanowski than the great Russian who looms so large in such Prokofiev compositions as the Scythian Suite. The work is scored with a precise economy of means, so that lean, translucent textures predominate despite the prominent part for tuba. As if the opening melody (conceived as early as 1915) were not magical enough, its recapitulation on solo flute (pp dolcissimo) with harp, muted strings and lightly running tracery from the soloist is quite ravishing, matched by the more elaborate return at the end of the finale. The central movement, a mercurial scherzo, gives the soloist ample opportunities for high jinks. Everywhere the flow of ideas is so spontaneous that the music seems to create its own form, an alloy of innocence and sophistication that served as a model for the concertos of Sir William Walton. Prokofiev himself moved on.
Program note by David Gutman
Sony Classical (SK 53 969):
Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka
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