Prokofiev may not have produced many chamber works compared with Shostakovich, but those that feature woodwinds are piquant and delightful. This enjoyable collection from the Ludwig Chamber Players—the name pays homage to Beethoven—begins with the two best-known works, the infectious Overture on Hebrew Themes and the much more modern-sounding Quintet, op. 39. The Overture, dating from 1918, is scored for piano quintet and a Klezmer-ish clarinet; a good deal depends upon how much like an authentic Klezmer player the clarinetist chooses to be. Here the emphasis by Dirk Altmann is more on puckishness, taking a quick pace and not leaning very heavily on the Jewishness of the melodies, by which I mean a combination of nostalgia, shtetl atmosphere, and plaintive wailing.
Shostakovich felt a deep kinship with Russian Jewish culture and ist tragic plight during World War II, but Prokofiev was inspired simply by a commission that came his way while he was living in New York. The clarinetist Simon Bellison from the New York Philharmonic actually provided the tunes, and Prokofiev sketched the whole piece in one day. This new reading is quite captivating.
The same is true for the Ludwigs’ reading of the Quintet, which is in six sharply contrasted movements and dates from 1924 in Paris. Making much of ist “radical” style, the program notes point out that the Quintet, originally commissioned as a possible ballet score, directly preceded the fierce Second Symphony. I find that the piece’s shocking Modernism has settled down considerably. The most marked quality of the score besides ist often dark mood is the unusual scoring for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass. The real surprise on the program are ingenious orchestrations of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, the French title for 20 piano miniatures he composed between 1915 and 1917; they were premiered by the composer in 1918 a month before he decamped for New York. Since many Russian pianists feel an affinity for these pieces, which the program notes call distinctive and highly individual, capturing the full range of Prokofiev’s keyboard style, it’s my fault that I’ve never much responded to them. But the surprisingly colorful arrangements for 10 instruments (strings, woodwinds, horn, and harp) by M. Ucki, a pseudonym, fascinated me. Each miniature is given ist own instrumental color, varying from tuttis for the whole ensemble to a solo oboe or flute with harp and everything in between. Ucki is adept at matching the instrumentation to the mood Prokofiev wants to establish, and the result is quite winning.
Since the Visions fugitives originated in Russia, we come full circle with Prokofiev’s eventual return home as a permanent resident in 1936, having suffered a frustrating mixture of success and indifference in Paris and America. To represent his last phase, we get three agreeable, fairly negligible works. The Sonata in D from 1947 was originally written for solo violin but got accepted by an approving Soviet music establishment as a student work to be performed by groups of violins in unison. An ill and depleted Prokofiev gained new inspiration in his final phase from Mstislav Rostropovich, 36 years his junior. A planned sonata for solo cello begun in 1952 was never completed, leaving behind only the first movement, which leaves off during the development section. Using the surviving sketches, the movement, marked Andante, was completed by Vladimir Blok after Prokofiev’s death in 1953. It’s a drab affair so far as I can hear, but is sensitively performed here by an unnamed soloist; no one is named in the Violin Sonata, either. (Tacet’s web site is also mum, so I suppose there were contractual issues.) We end with the brief, jocular Humoresque Scherzo for bassoon quartet. How could it not be jocular where bassoons are involved and the performers call themselves the Swing Fagottet?
Completing the package with first-rate recorded sound and literate program notes that follow Prokofiev on his migrations, this CD wins on all counts. There’s enough very good music to offset the works that most listeners will probably experience only once.Huntley Dent