Ukrainian-born violinist Vadim Gluzman has built up an impressively diverse repertoire in the recordings he has made for the Swedish-based BIS Records. I first became aware of him through his interest in recording the music of Lera Auerbach, but more recently I have been following his pursuit of the works of Sergei Prokofiev. In August of 2013 BIS released his album of the violin sonatas, which Gluzman performed with pianist Angele Yoffe; and this past August saw a release of the two violin concertos, with Neeme Järvi conducting the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Opus 115 D major solo violin sonata.
The serious listener will appreciate that these three compositions are presented in chronological order on this album, because they serve as representative way stations along the journey through Prokofiev’s biography. He first began working on his first violin concerto (which would become his Opus 19 in D major) in 1915; but this was a time when Prokofiev was working hard to build up his reputation in cities such as London and Paris, rather than concentrating of musical life in Russia. The result was that he often had several projects on his plate at the same time. These included providing ballet music for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and composing the opera The Gambler, based on the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Unfortunately, the February Revolution in 1917 led to this opera’s cancellation; and Prokofiev’s work on his concerto suffered a similar fate. Among other difficulties, his anticipated soloist, the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski, had relocated to the United States. Between the Russian Revolution and the First World War, Prokofiev decoded to make a similar move, arriving at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay on August 11, 1918.
The concerto had to wait until things had cooled down, and it received its first performance with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra on October 18, 1923. The soloist was the ensemble’s concertmaster Marcel Darrieux. Prokofiev’s time in the United States had not been particularly successful, and he had returned to Paris in April of 1920. However, his fortunes improved once Joseph Szigeti took it upon himself to add the concerto to his repertoire. Szigeti was a champion of contemporary music, and he was highly enthusiastic about Opus 19. While the concerto is no longer “contemporary,” Gluzman seems to have cultivated an appreciation for the modernism that surrounded Prokofiev’s cultural life in cities like Paris. As a result, while many of the tropes of this concerto have become far more familiar, Gluzman approaches them with the sort of intense energy that would make the attentive listener sit up and take notice.
The second concerto (Opus 63 in G minor) was composed in 1935 at a time when Prokofiev was based in Paris but making frequent visits to the Soviet Union. His major Soviet project at that time was the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The notes by Horst A. Scholz for the accompanying booklet suggest that the concerto score reflects “the requirements of Socialist Realism” through its transparency and simplicity. To the extent that the themes strike the ear with a bit more coherence than those of Opus 19, Scholz probably has a valid case. From a political point of view, however, what may be most interesting is that this concerto had two champions on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, Jascha Heifetz in the United States and David Oistrakh in the Soviet Union. As a result this is the most familiar selection on Gluzman’s new album; and, for those listening to this album in its entirety, Opus 63 makes for a refreshing “spacer” between the unfamiliarity of both Opus 19 and Opus 115.
Indeed, by the time Prokofiev began working on Opus 115 in 1947, life, now in the Soviet Union, had become unpleasantly difficult. He had managed to wait out the Second World War at safe distances that the Soviet government arranged for their most valued artists. However, following the conclusion of the war, his high blood pressure led to a fall that resulted in a serious concussion, from which he never fully recovered.
Ironically, this was a narrow window of better days in the history of relations between Soviet authorities and creative artists. It was a time that allowed for high spirits over the end of the war. They may have been best captured in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 70 (ninth) symphony in E-flat major (which, among friends, I like to call the whoopee-the-war-is-over symphony). Indeed, spirits were so high that most of those artists failed to anticipate the result of more oppressive authoritarianism; but that is just what happened when the Zhdanov Decree was issued early in 1948.
However, Opus 115 is about as detached from both the Second World War and brutal Stalinism as one could imagine. The music was strictly pedagogical; and, while it is performed solo by virtuoso violinists, it was written for a classroom of skilled violin pupils to play in unison. Listening to Gluzman play the piece as a solo, one can only marvel at the prospect of a gathering of young violinists playing this piece the way Prokofiev intended. Scholz’ notes give no indication of whether or not Prokofiev was ever present at such a gathering. He only observes that the piece was not performed as a solo until after Prokofiev’s death, when Ruggiero Ricci played it in Moscow on July 10, 1959.
One may thus approach the entire album as a journey that concludes with an aging and infirm Prokofiev recovering some of the adventurous approaches to composition through which he had distinguished himself while trying to build his reputation among “competing” modernists in the Paris that preceded the First World War. Whether or not Gluzman had such a journey in mind is anyone’s guess. He may just have recognized the value of taking a chronological approach and then let the ensuing contexts for these three compositions run their course. Whatever the case may be, this is an album that works just as well as an entire program as a collection of selections from three periods in Prokofiev’s biography that happen to feature violin solo work.