In Tianwa Yang’s newest recording for Naxos (Naxos 8.574107) the Chinese violinist performs three Prokofiev works for violin: two violin concertos and a Sonata for Solo Violin.

Prokofiev wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 early in life when he heard the playing of his composition teacher, Reinhold Glière. The Violin Concerto No. 2 premiered in 1935 in Madrid, Spain when the composer was on tour, while the much simpler to the point of naïveté Sonata for Solo Violin, Opus 115 was commissioned by the Soviet Union’s Committee of Arts Affairs as a pedagogical work for talented violin students, designed to be played not by one soloist but by multiple young performers in unison: three altogether diverse compositions, written under completely different circumstances, that sound at times as if coming from the pens of three different composers.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1963) lived in difficult times. Like his contemporary Igor Stravinsky he left his native Russia fairly soon after the 1917 Revolution. He toured. He lived in France for a while, in the States next. He married twice, after divorcing his Spanish wife for his Russian mistress. He was embraced by the Soviets, received numerous awards and commissions. He fell out of favor with the Soviets, much like his colleagues Khachaturian and Shostakovich did. At first he wrote decidedly dissonant music – termed “Modernist” back in the day, while later he shunned atonality and created his own brand of “Modernist” composition, flirting with polytonality, embracing a harmonic language chockfull of deceptive cadences – a kind of Russian post-Romanticism that more than once got him in hot waters with the Soviet cultural police.

While any neglected or just simply any rarely performed Prokofiev is better than no Prokofiev at all, repeated listening to all three of the works in this CD failed move me. Much of this music sounds cold, formulaic and academic. While there are plenty of flashes of brilliance in Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, in his Peter and the Wolf, in his Alexander Nevsky score for Eisenstein film of the same title, in his rapturously beautiful score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and in his Lieutenant Kije suite, I find the twists and turns of Prokofiev’s personal journey infinitely more compelling than much of his music.

In this recording Tianwa Yang plays with fiery drive and determination, receiving strong support from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra led by Jun Märkl.

Rafael de Acha   ALL ABOUT THE ARTS