Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne: Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas / Five Melodies
Prokofiev's only two violin sonatas get the reading of a lifetime.
This is a splendid recording. Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne are both exceptional musicians, but that's not the main reason that Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas; Five Melodies is an exceptional recording. It's the fact that Prokofiev himself seems to shine through the performances. Violinist Ibragimova and pianist Osborne both seem to instinctively know that when you are traveling back to the time of the late romantics, you don't make it all about you. You make it all about the composer. Sergei Prokofiev and his ilk came from heady times and his first violin sonata is not for the opportunist. Alina Ibragimova is not even thirty yet, but she was born in Russia so she must have at least a better-than-decent understanding of what it was like to live under Stalin's Great Terror.
Back in the '30s, Soviet authorities began throwing people in the slammer. Some were peasants, others were of the affluent intelligentsia, but all were seen as just standing in the current Communist Party's way. Composers like Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich had some of their major patrons vanish overnight. Their disappearances were never explained and it wasn't until much later that people learned that the prisoners were shot just a month or so after being abducted. It's estimated that at least 680,000 people met their end during this "purge" and many more were banished to work camps. Soviet civilians must have been on pins and needles during all of this, watching loved ones being carted away and not knowing what to do about it. Prokofiev had a late coming of age. If he truly had the "spoiled brat" upbringing, as Marin Alsop put it to us on NPR, that upbringing was thoroughly chased out of him by the time he wrote his first violin sonata. His fifth symphony finds his psyche deep in the mire of World War II and the rest of his life wasn't that much easier. For instance, his wife was arrested for "espionage" in 1948. Apparently trying to send money to your mother in Spain is a form of spying (she was released five years later, the same year Prokofiev died).
Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne don't try to trample all over this. They understand the thorny history and how it more than likely informed the compositions. This CD is bookended by Prokofiev's two violin sonatas, the first one in F minor and lasting close to 27 minutes and the second one in D major lasting 22 minutes. Prokofiev began working on "Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor" in the dark time of 1938. Ibragimova pours all the sorrow and resignation she can into the soft opening trills. And even at Osborne's most forceful octave pounding the music still floats like a vapor (this could have something to do with the fact that these tracks were recorded in London's Henry Wood Hall, a venue that enjoys a reputation of having superior acoustics). Towards the end of the first movement Ibragimova throws a series of very soft arpeggios into the air. They are so light that they barely qualify as arpeggios, they are more like sighs.
The "Five Melodies" in the middle, at close to 12 minutes, make up the smallest portion of the CD. It's a small novelty when you compare it to his other work, but a listener can get the feeling that these "Songs without Words" are not entirely frivolous. The same goes for "Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major", perhaps even more so. Compared to the first sonata, Prokofiev completed the second one quickly. It was the early '40s and the Great Terror had already peaked. Citizens remained uneasy, and that went for the composer as well. As optimistic "Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major" tries to be, it can't seem to step out from under the overcast. Ibragimova and Osborne don't betray this contradiction, they embrace it. If the sonata can't decide if it's abandoning the past or not, then who are Ibragimova and Osborne to steer that?
They don't need to be reminded. Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne likely knew going into this project that the music has enough emotional baggage to fill Pulkovo Airport. As far as performances go, hardly anything needs to be changed. As far as violin and piano duet compositions go, you are looking looking down the barrel of some of the best.