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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Virtuoso playing, flawed recording, 30 Jun 2013
Daryl Runswick (London, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Brahms/Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas (Audio CD)
This is a review of the Prokofiev First Sonata only, comparing and contrasting three performances: by Gil and Orli Shaham, by James Ehnes and Wendy Chen, and by David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter.

The first thing to say is that the Oistrakh/Richter CD (a live radio recording from the Salzburg Festival in 1972) suffers from major balance problems: Oistrakh was either under-recorded by the engineer or he wandered off mic. It's criminal that the record company have done nothing about this - I found I could improve things greatly by putting the audio into my music software, turning down Richter (who's on the right), narrowing the stereo picture a little and then moving the whole thing back to the middle. It took me 15 minutes: time the record company could have spent making their product listenable. I recommend if you buy this CD you at least turn the balance knob half-way to the left.

That said, these are all three wonderful performances, hence the five stars despite my criticisms. Gil and Orli Shaham have a most intuitive rapport, doing the phrasing and rubato almost like a single person. Ehnes and Chen are also brilliant chamber music partners, not quite as joined at the hip as the Shahams but wonderfully sympathetic, and slightly better recorded. Oistrakh and Richter are less of a team, more a pair of virtuosi, but they are obviously having a ball together and spurring one another to greater heights.

This Sonata divides itself into slow, atmospheric music (mostly the first and third movements) and loud, passionate music (the second and fourth). The Shahams do the atmospherics sensationally, Gil suppressing his soloistic nature in the service of the music. Oistrakh and Richter give these passages the big treatment with silky mezza voce combined with great presence. Ehnes and Chen miss the heights of the other two duos in this quiet music, playing beautifully but failing to achieve the Shahams' mysticism or the Russians' hushed theatricality. When it comes to the brash music, however, Ehnes and Chen score over the Shahams, who seem to be holding back too much for my taste: indeed Ehnes and Chen are the only pairing who make the fourth movement of the Sonata sound as if it's as good a piece of music as the first three. It's difficult to bring this off (Did Prokofiev quite bring it off?) and even Oistrakh and Richter don't deliver the magical conclusion we hope for. Ehnes and Chen do.

So the choice? For passionate lyricism and virtuosity I'd go for Oistrakh/Richter (with a clenched fist raised to the record company). For atmosphere and a great chamber music relationship I'd make a compilation - the Shahams in movements 1 and 3, Ehnes/Chen in 2 and 4. But you'll not be let down whichever you buy.
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Brahms/Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas
Brahms/Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas by J. Brahms (Audio CD - 1998)
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