Quartetto Energie Nove’s Splendid Prokofiev

Prokofiev quartets

PROKOFIEV: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (arr. Samsonov) / Quartetto Energie Nove / Dynamic CDS726

Having been blown away by Quartetto Energie Nove’s performances of the Janáček String Quartets (see my review here), I decided to review this earlier disc of Prokofiev quartets. Now, one must take into account the fact that Prokofiev’s music, particularly his later music, tends to be not only more astringent in harmony than Janáček but also more cerebral and emotionally detached, rare exceptions being his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3, Peter and the Wolf, Lt. Kije Suite, Romeo and Juliet and the Seventh Symphony. In much of the music of his maturity, Prokofiev wrote what I feel are intellectually challenging (and sometimes playful) scores, where the challenge to the performer(s) is to make it sound interesting.

Andrew Litton achieved this in his recent release of the Prokofiev Symphonies Nos. 4 (revised 1947 version) and 7, and Quartetto Energie Nove achieves it in this recording of the two string quartets and an arrangement for quartet of Visions Fugitives. Their approach to the music is, stylistically, somewhat different from their performances of Janáček. Here, they approach the music in a taut, linear fashion, eschewing any lingering moments of rubato. Indeed, the tempos, once begun, are so strict that one could set a metronome to them and let them go. Yet this is not a negative thing, for within that strict tempo the quartet manages to expand on Prokofiev’s basic instructions by imparting a great deal of electricity to each note and phrase. It would be easy to say that many young string quartets do the same thing, but I would counter that this is not necessarily the case, also that in many cases other quartets fail to grasp the differences between romantic quartets and modern ones. By approaching Prokofiev this way, Quartetto Energie Nove feels that these works fall somewhere between, say, Janáček and Kodály on one hand and post-1940 string quartets on the other. They want us to establish both an intellectual and emotional connection with this music, and to that end they do some amazing work.

To a certain extent one can hear the difference most clearly in the arrangement of Visions Fugitives, a series of short piano pieces originally composed in 1915-17. Here the quartet sounds more genial and playful, as is befitting these works. In some of the faster, edgier pieces in this group, i.e. No. XV Inquieto, they play with the same kind of drive and emotional ferocity heard in the later quartets, but by and large they approach the music more lyrically (listen particularly to No. XVII, Poetico). It is a fine line they walk between pressing hard and easing up, and they have very fine instincts in their choices.

If I seem to have placed more attention on the lesser work here it is not because I was less impressed with the larger quartets, but because it provides a contrast in style and shows how well they judge their effects. On the contrary, their taut, lean yet highly charged readings of the two big quartets are outstanding—listen, for instance, to the way they balance the lyrical and explosive elements in the second movements of both quartets, bringing out Prokofiev’s sometimes-obscured dark side. Many other young chamber groups can play the larger works in a similar style, albeit not always with this kind of emotional commitment, whereas almost none can pull off what they do in the miniatures. This is a thoughtful as well as an exciting disc, highly recommended.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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