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 Recording of the Week  Prokofiev Violin Sonatas from Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne

The chamber music of Prokofiev isn't an area I'm hugely familiar with, so this week's disc – comprising the two Violin Sonatas and the set of Five Melodies – was something of an exploration. In the capable hands of Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne, I've had as good an introduction to this side of the composer (whom I hitherto knew primarily as an orchestral writer) as I could wish for.

Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne
Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne

The First Sonata, in F minor, is unmistakeably stark right from the beginning, with Osborne lending the initial melody a sense of deep foreboding as the violin's hesitant, self-absorbed trill motif enters over the top. From this dark opening the movement expands out into a landscape of palpable grief – and casting an eye over the notes, it's immediately clear why. This sonata was conceived and written at the height of Stalin's Great Terror, and eventually (after a hiatus of some years) took on the form of a memorial for personal friends and colleagues who disappeared.

In the light of this, it's not just the bell-like tolling of the piano's lower octaves that makes a strong impression, but also the brief glimpses of light in the second movement, which features a lyrical, yearning melody in the violin that seems at times to emerge out of nowhere. It's impossible not to hear this in the context of the despair that surrounded the work's genesis, and Ibragimova very much picks up on this, lending it a bittersweet, elegiac quality. The Sonata's fourth movement (written five years after the first three), while also opening in boisterous mood, lacks the discordant, tortured harmonic nature of the rest of the work; a characteristic motif consisting of two rising major chords occurs throughout, seeming to represent in musical form Prokofiev raising his head and squaring his shoulders to move on from the artistic and personal tragedies that had been inflicted on him. It brings the work to a melancholic, but calm, close.

A set of five songs without words (also titled simply Melodies) provides a welcome contrast; having originally composed them for the Russian mezzo Nina Koshetz as a set of wordless vocalises, Prokofiev was convinced by his musical associates of their suitability for performance on the violin, and in collaboration with the violinist Kochánski he transcribed them accordingly. The resulting set of miniatures are exquisitely beautiful, and provide Osborne and Ibragimova with the perfect arena in which to demonstrate their flexibility of expression and their ability to adapt seamlessly to different musical moods.

We remain in the world of transcriptions for the Second Sonata; originally composed for the flute, this too was reimagined for the violin at the instigation of a performer friend – in this case David Oistrakh. While there are moments of shadow, and of the characteristic sardonic wit that seems to have sustained so many Soviet composers through dark times (particularly Shostakovich), it is on the whole a much sunnier and less troubled work than the First. Strong traces of Prokofiev's neoclassical period, coupled with striking influences of jazz idioms in the final movement, make for an accessible, lyrical work.

Darkness and light, then; two enormously contrasting sonatas that could hardly be more different, but it's testament to the musicianship of Ibragimova and Osborne that both works, as well as the Melodies (which are certainly more than just filler material), succeed so well. As a relative newcomer to this aspect of Prokofiev's musical personality I wasn't sure what to expect from this disc, but it's a very varied and at times profoundly moving experience.

Samples are below; enjoy!

Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas & Five Melodies

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Steven Osborne (piano)

Available Format: CD