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October 2013
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New Release, New Take on Prokofiev

Violinist James Ehnes

Violinist James Ehnes


WFMT’s New Release of the Week comes to us from Canadian violinist James Ehnes. He has recorded all the solo violin works of Sergei Prokofiev. For the concertos, he’s joined by Gianandrea Noseda, who owns the distinction of being the only western conductor to hold a post with the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia. In this recording, Noseda brings his Russian chops to the BBC Philharmonic for this Chandos set.


To me James Ehnes has always been a violinist with technique and virtuosity to spare, but it is always in the service of the music he’s performing – never excessive or flamboyant.  He finds lyricism and meaning in everything he approaches, whether it’s a contemporary piece or an established staple of the repertoire.  He’s among the best out there right now.

—WFMT’s Kerry Frumkin

Prokofiev‘s writing for the violin seems anything but focused; not the music itself, but the way he moved through his work like a cyclone, picking up and dropping pieces, all at a 150 miles per hour. Anyone who travels for a living knows how scattered one’s personal affairs can become, yet the music that came out of Prokofiev was anything but scattered. His writing pays testament to a very methodical, and disciplined mind. He wrote his First Violin Concerto about the same time as his Classical Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, several solo piano pieces and a cantata.

Sergei Prokofiev around the time he first traveled to San Francisco (1918)

Sergei Prokofiev around the time he first traveled to San Francisco (1918)

With the Concerto still unheard, he acquired a visa (and this was 1918, a good time to get out of Russia), packed up his scores and first headed to San Francisco; he spent time in a number of places in the U.S. and in Europe, eventually settling in Paris. To be sure, he had his champions and plenty of work in the west, though living there ultimately did not agree with him (it was hot to be Russian in Paris, though Stravinsky was always hotter). With new influences, new trends and new opportunities coming at him from every direction, Prokofiev set aside his First Concerto. It wasn’t premiered until 1923 by Joseph Szigeti, who made it one of his signature pieces, though Prokofiev’s edgier works fared better with the Parisians (the opposite was true with his Russian audience).

The music, full of contrast, is by turns amusing, naughty, for a while even malevolent, athletic, and always violinistically ingenious and brilliant. It seems to be over in a moment.

—Michael Steinberg, on the First Concerto

While in Paris, Prokofiev teamed up with some like-minded composers, Artur Honneger, Francis Poulenc, and Darius Milhaud; they called themselves “Triton.” For one of their concerts, Prokofiev composed a Two Violin Sonata. As luck would have it, he was double-booked that night, his ballet On the Dnieper was having its premiere across the street. Prokofiev later wrote:

“Fortunately the ballet came on half an hour later, and so immediately after the sonata we dashed over to the Grand Opera–musicians, critics, author all together.”

Still impossibly busy, his Second Concerto was also set aside; this time for the composition of the masterpiece ballet Romeo and Juliet. The concerto followed soon after, having its premiere in December of 1935.

In 1936, as Stalin began implementing his psychopathic purges, Prokofiev settled his family permanently in Russia—a decision that has baffled biographers ever since. Princeton scholar Simon Morrison counters that Prokofiev had always traveled between Russia and the West, and had continued to make a lot of his money in Russia. According to Morrison (who was recently granted access to unpublished letters), the permanence of that choice wasn’t necessarily so apparent to the Prokofievs. The composer’s wife Lina had signed a lease in Santa Monica, CA. The next time the Prokofievs returned to Russia, visas were revoked. Prokofiev himself was still allowed to travel to the west for a time, but his family was not. This was only the beginning of the troubles for Lina Prokofiev, but that’s another story.

One positive outcome of Prokofiev’s settling in Russia was the relationship he forged with the Soviet virtuoso David Oistrakh. Prokofiev reworked a Flute Sonata for Oistrakh in 1944, known as the Violin Sonata No.2 in D major; he wrote an F minor Sonata for Oistrakh, which is known as the First Violin Sonata in 1946—it looks backwards, but that is the numbering system.

Biographer Simon Morrison on the Second Sonata:


In 1945, just a week after the triumphant premiere of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, the composer fell in his home, an accident triggered by high blood pressure. He suffered a concussion and never fully recovered. One of the few works to come out of 1947 was a Sonata for Solo Violin in D major.

One of the most poignant discussions on this time comes from Bill McGlaughlin:

  • Charles Palys

    Typo: Oistrakh “…he forged with the Soviet virtuoso David Oistakh. Prokofiev reworked…”