Prokofiev Violin Concertos Channel Classics

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No.1 in D major Op19
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor Op63
Maria Milstein (violin) Phion Orchestra/Otto Tausk
rec. 2022, Muziekcentrum Enschede, MCO, Netherlands
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview 

Maria Milstein has enjoyed a quietly successful career largely out of the limelight and with this pairing of works she is making a decisive move away from the more esoteric chamber works that make up the bulk of her discography, a very fine Ravel disc recorded with her pianist sister Nathalia excepted. Practically ever fiddler worth their salt has taped these works so the big question is : does Milstein have the requisite star quality to hold her own? Happily the answer is yes and the result is one of the most enjoyable sets of performances of these much played works I’ve heard for quite a while. 

If Hilary Hahn, in her excellent recent recording of the first concerto, (strangely) transports it to Paris, then Russian born, Holland based violinist, Maria Milstein takes it and its companion firmly home to Russia. There is an earthiness to her view of both works often missing from more cosmopolitan accounts and I think they are all the better for it. That doesn’t mean Milstein is clumsy or unrefined – the end of the first movement of the D major concerto is as balletically poised as could be dreamt of but this ballet, Dutch orchestra notwithstanding, is being staged at the Bolshoi. 

By balletic, I also mean a groundedness in the Prokofievian rhythms that still beat through these more lyrical scores. I should imagine every movement of these concertos as performed here could actually be danced with little adjustment by ballet dancers. 

In the unjustly neglected second concerto, this connection brings to my mind the composer’s roughly contemporaneous Romeo and Juliet. Much recorded though it is, this concerto has never enjoyed the popular success of the first. I find this perplexing as it seems to have all the qualities that have made other works by the composer catch the imagination of the listening public. It has great melodies – listen to the swooning second subject of the opening movement in Milstein’s hands and we are eavesdropping on a bashful Romeo making declarations to his Juliet – and features Prokofiev’s dazzling talent for orchestration at its best. Personally, I have always preferred rough hewn Russian recordings of his great ballet score to more perfumed Western outings. The same is true here. Too many recordings seek to round out the corners where Milstein and Tausk seem to delight in the tangy scents of the Steppes that waft through the writing. 

This approach is certainly advanced by Milstein’s rich, ripe tone which is like a throwback to older Russian fiddlers such as Heifetz and Oistrakh. It is as solid as it is fulsome. Certainly Hahn in the first concerto sounds positively undernourished by comparison though there are compensations to be had in that work from Hahn’s lighter sound. Milstein really comes into her own in this regard in the glorious melody of the slow movement of second concerto. Forget all fussy critical appraisals – this is violin fanciers’ heaven. 

The little known Phion Orchestra, formed in 2019 after a merger between the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra, provide nimble and empathetic support and clearly enjoyed their week in the studio. Only very occasionally did they seem a little tentative as when they take over the main tune at the end of the slow movement of No.2 to the soloist’s pizzicato accompaniment. Mostly Tausk’s alert direction keeps them on their toes as in the spiky, robust finale of the second concerto. The forthright unabashed contributions of the bass drum, caught with admirable presence by Channel Classics’ ample sound, amongst many things to appreciate. 

But of course the violin needs to be the centre of attention and Milstein pulls off her moment in the sun with aplomb. Milstein can easily join the ranks of Vengerov, and even the incomparable Oistrakh in these concertos. To my ears, she matches Gil Shaham for brio and outclasses him for poetry whilst her conception of both works is deeper and better characterised than Ehnes, to choose but two from a plethora of rivals. She plays with a natural easy charisma that suits the almost naïve wonder of Prokofiev very neatly. Meaning no offence to precocious teenagers, listening to this recording I had the feeling I was in the presence of a mature artist whose interpretations had had time to develop and settle. Milstein has everything she needs to be another star in the violin firmament- gorgeous tone, finely honed musicality and plenty of charisma – maybe this recording will be the one to take her out of the wings onto centre stage? 

David McDade

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