Maxim Vengerov / Mstislav Rostropovich / London Symphony Orchestra

Prokofiev & Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No. 1

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This award-winning disc features the prodigious talent of 20-year-old Maxim Vengerov, the clarity of interpretation of 67-year-old Mstislav Rostropovich, and two brilliant concertos by the two greatest Russian composers of the 20th century. Vengerov plays a 1727 "Reynier" Stradivarius violin in both works, and the total effect is wondrous.

Prokofiev's brittle Violin Concerto No. 1 was written before the Russian revolution which upended his life; it is free spirited and deliciously daring. Vengerov brings out all the abandon the youthful Prokofiev crafted into the piece, even injecting zest into the sour, sawing, second-movement scherzo. The finale becomes lyrical, and Vengerov's tone sings in grand style before spiraling off to a celestial ending.

In direct contrast to the free-spirited enthusiasm of the Prokofiev concerto, the Violin Concerto No. 1 of Shostakovich, written in secret at the height of Stalin's oppression, is menacing and enigmatic. The composer even crafted philosophical musings into the score, disguised as sequences of musical notes, and a clear performance of such a work would seem difficult indeed to achieve. From the first, murky opening notes, Vengerov descends with the composer into his fear, anger, and bitterness, and the effect is total. The broad-shouldered work ranges from eerie keening to angry shrieks, and Vengerov and his priceless violin are more than equal to the challenge. Particularly effective are the dark musings of the two extended slow movements, the first and third. The finale is chilling in its irony and defiance, where Vengerov's élan and abandon set exactly the right tone. It is a brilliant realization from beginning to end.

Eighteenth-century violin maker Antonio Stradivari no doubt could not have conceived of hearing his instruments issue the sounds demanded of them on this disc. In the hands of the young Vengerov the Stradivari instrument effortlessly surmounts the difficulties of these works; the spectrum of sound he calls forth is presented gloriously by Teldec's perfect recording here. The orchestral sound stage is perfectly spread, and the soloist, front and center, soars above it magnificently. This is a marvelous, landmark recording that belongs in every serious music lover's collection. The listener is also referred to the same team's brilliant follow-up recording of these same composers' second concertos on Teldec (0630-13150-2).

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