INKPOT#62 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: PROKOFIEV The String Quartets. 2-Violin Sonata. Emerson Quartet (DG)

SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

String Quartet No.1 in B minor, Op.50
String Quartet No.2 in F major, Op.92
Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op.56The Emerson String Quartet

Eugene Drucker Philip Setzer violins Lawrence Dutton viola David Finckel cello

Deutsche Grammophon 431 772-2
[59’06”] full-price

by Ong Yong Hui

Prokofiev’s string quartets are seemingly just temporary distractions from his mainstream compositions, that is, his orchestral works and piano music. Being a pianist himself, he probably had less inclination to write much chamber music for strings and therefore it is not surprising that his String Quartet No.1 in B minor, Op.50 was born from a commission by the Library of Congress while he was in America.

There is no doubt that this is Prokofiev’s music though. Fast and furious for the first movement’s Allegro, the music gathers momentum after the opening phrase. With an interlude of distracting lyricism in the middle section, the music continues on its speeding track all the way to the end. Sudden wandering of melody lines and abrupt shifts in tempo and rhythm nevertheless converge in the end to conclude satisfactorily, branding the work as Prokofiecv’s with his distinctive quirky style.

The slow introduction of the second movement is quite deceiving, for like the first movement, it burns with energy and vigor. Shifting into high gear after the start, it never turns back and new themes are introduced instead. The opening nonchalant-sounding theme of the last movement Andante develops into one of emotional intensity and yearning, then only to be destroyed by a sudden episode of sinister dissonance before lapsing back uncomfortably to the initial phrase.

Next on this disc is his Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op.56 , inserted between the two quartets like a temporary diversion. The violin duet repertoire is quite obscure, and like the commission above, this work was composed for the opening concert of the Triton, a group championing new chamber music in Paris. The Sonata starts off with an Andante Cantabile written in the style of a ‘recitative’ piece, such as those of Kreisler and Enesco for solo violin. The following Allegro is an exciting scherzo punctuated with crashing chords and exploring a variety of moods, all with fast-paced excitement and probably spectacular to watch as well. A singing Allegretto movement then serves as a foil for an animated Allegro con brio which ends the sonata in lively fashion. I am particularly attracted to this piece in the disc, one of only a few two-violin works that I have heard before, other than Bartok’s 44 Duos for two violins and Wieniawski’s Etude-Caprice. The slow movements are attractive in an intriguing way, and the fast movements are irresistable.

The String Quartet No.2 in F major, Op.92 follows a much more conventional style, structured in sonata form as a whole and also for the first movement. The Allegro is based much on a rhythmic motif following a dramatic start, a second theme is later introduced and a formal recapitulation is available to close the movement properly.

The Adagio begins as a lush and ravishing lament on the high register of the cello, and unexpectedly turns into light and carefree music that somehow seems to be a depiction of a picture of children at play. Ending without notice, the opening passionate cry resumes on the violin, this time after a pause, burning itself out by the passion and fades off. The last movement is an unabashed and frolicking dance of folk origin taken through variations right to the end. On the whole, the attention on rhythmic motifs and rhythm-based melodies seems to suggest that parts, if not whole sections and movements, have their material derived from folk melodies.

These quartets might not be the main staple of the quartet repertoire, but I do think they are very highly enjoyable, and a great introduction to Prokofiev’s chamber music. Every piece in this disc has this sense of focus, intent on bringing out the music without pretense or need for lengthy and formal introductions – everything is conveyed in a direct manner which is very honest and appealing in that way. As a sample to the music of Prokofiev, the Quartets show how Prokofiev likes to mix music and themes of wildly dissimilar character together, and also how disparate elements in his music are always resolved in appropriate style. This disc has piqued my interest and has instant appeal for me because the music is always so full of spirit and life.

The Emerson does a very commendable job here, and given their reputation for overwhelming technical skill and stamina, they really do the music a great service. They impart to it all the vitality, brightness and aggressiveness the music ought to possess, and I wonder if other quartets can compare to their standard of ensemble-playing. Their attack on the notes are really strong and harsh, dynamic variations so greatly contrasted that cresendos burst out explosively and sudden diminuendos will force you to strain to catch the musical thread again. If you want to have a copy of Prokofiev’s string quartets because you are curious as I am in exploring the genre, or just want to try out Prokofiev’s musical style, this recording is surely the best bet. This is good and fun music that is brightened up by technical brillance and fireworks.

This disc is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs, Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Borders (Wheelock Place).

Ong Yong Hui is a nocturnal creature who can only slumber in the afternoon and arise at night to feed.

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