Prokofiev Chamber Works

Author: 
Robert Layton

Prokofiev Chamber Works

  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • Sonata for 2 Violins

Only last July I was welcoming a Chandos recording of the two Prokofiev quartets by the Chilingirian, which I thought generally less concentrated in feeling than the rival American Quartet on Olympia/Complete Record Co. Of the Prokofiev quartets, No. 2 is the better known, and is certainly the more recorded. The Quartetto Italiano (Columbia), the Carmirelli (Decca), and the Novak Quartets (Philips) come to mind. Just a reminder for those who may have missed the July issue, the piece comes from the dark days of the war when Prokofiev was evacuated to the Caucasus, where he succumbed to the rich musical folklore of Kabarda—as had Taneyev before him. But although the material is folk-derived, it sounds totally Prokofievian. The First was written at the behest of the Library of Congress in 1930; Miaskovsky was particularly loud in his praises of the last movement, which Prokofiev subsequently scored for full strings. In one sense the Emerson version is phenomenal and better played than almost any previous one (if by better playing you mean sheer brilliance of ensemble and perfection of technique) but in another, almost any of its rivals is to be preferred.
The Emerson have won golden opinions (and a Gramophone Award) for their quartets Bartok quartets and I can well appreciate that on a first encounter their dazzling technical accomplishment disarms criticism. They have (to paraphrase David Cairns on the Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan's days) the beauty of a perfectly functioning machine, but there is little evidence of tenderness, spontaneity or intimacy of feeling. Throughout both works their playing has an aggressive edge; sforzandos are explosive, exaggerated and thrustful, their tone is consistently overnourished and their phrasing self-regarding. Almost every dynamic hairpin and expressive marking is overstated; nothing is left to speak for itself and no moment of repose is left to its own (as opposed to their) eloquence.
Readers who recall the pioneering Capital mono LP of the Second Quartet by the Hollywood Quartet (4/52—nla) will know that this remarkable piece responds well to all this razzle-dazzle brilliance and virtuosity, but their attack did not preclude either wit or lightness of touch, for which you will look in vain in this performance: accents are punched home with what I am tempted to describe as brutality, an impression that was not dispelled even when I tried the disc at a lower level setting. I'm afraid I don't really care for this high-powered, larger-than-life playing. Neither of the rivals listed above offers a fill-up (in this instance a slick account of the Sonata for two violins), and none is as brightly or more forwardly recorded.'

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