Visions of Prokofiev
It was a nice idea to spice a logical Prokofiev concerto coupling with a trio of transcriptions, the musician who crafted them so skilfully Lisa Batiashvili’s father, Tamás. Years ago the Cinderella Grand Waltz was seductively turned by David Oistrakh, part of a sequence of five pieces from the ballet arranged by Mikhail Fikhtengolts. In fact Alto has released a CD featuring Oistrakh’s vintage Melodiya recordings of these jewels alongside the two violin concertos (ALC1318), the First under Kondrashin, the Second under Galliera, wonderful performances all of them, and so full of character. Batiashvili effectively echoes Oistrakh’s warmth and there’s a definite boon in having an orchestral accompaniment securely led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin rather than Yampolsky’s piano, excellent though that is. It was Heifetz who most famously gave us the Love for Three Oranges March on the violin; and although the March of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet works reasonably well – especially in such a powerful performance – by concentrating on a single voice the transcription rather pushes the piece off balance.
But these are just the fill-ups, after all. As to the concertos, Nézet-Séguin cues a fine-spun accompaniment at the start and close of No 1, whereas he, the COE and Batiashvili collude for a carping attack at the centre of the Scherzo, rather like Gringolts and Neeme Järvi do in the same passage. Some tempo changes are quite violent: in the first movement of the First Concerto, for example, at the point where the soloist switches to a wildly strumming pizzicato (6'07" in this context), though I like Batiashvili’s gentle swagger earlier on in the movement. She perfectly captures the music’s sardonic spirit without overdoing the aggression. I also appreciate her free-flowing way with the solo opening of the Second Concerto, her subtle use of portamento and the sweetness of the first movement’s second subject. The bittersweet second movement, which is ideally paced, has an appropriate air of chasteness about it, and as always Nézet-Séguin keeps woodwind lines well to the fore. That said, this admirable trait becomes a mite distracting at 1'33" into the finale of the First Concerto, where the bassoon’s presence is so conspicuous that for a while you’re aware of nothing else, or at least I was. But otherwise I was grateful for having so much detail brought to my attention.
As to selected rivals, I retain a strong affection for Frank Peter Zimmermann with Lorin Maazel in the First Concerto and James Ehnes with Gianandrea Noseda in the two coupled together; but if you haven’t yet heard David Oistrakh in No 1 (preferably the Kondrashin version – Melodiya, 8/63) and Jascha Heifetz in No 2 (under Charles Munch – RCA, 1/61) then, thinking in terms of Prokofiev’s violin concertos, you haven’t lived. Batiashvili is a very fine advocate of both works who lacks just an element of personality.