Prokofiev Violin Concerto - Joseph Swensen - The Strad

Although this is brightly recorded CD credits Joseph Swensen as both conductor and violinist, a case should be made for adding ‘arranger' to his line-up of musical activities. Swensen's adaptation of Prokofiev's Five Melodies is a worthy addition to the violin and string orchestra repertory. Reflecting the composer's joy at discovering California's sunny shores, they were originally written for voice and piano. Prokofiev readily adapted the work for violin in 1925, altering the vocal part to include a variety of idiomatic string techniques: pizzicato, harmonica and double stops.

Turning his prodigious talents from performance to composition, Swensen succeeds in transforming Prokofiev's piano score into a tapestry of rich orchestral textures, most notably in the Eastern inflections in the middle section of the second piece.

Unfortunately Swensen's violinistic capacities are not on par with either his approach to orchestration or conducting. The Five Melodies are marred by sudden surges of vibrato and questionable slides, while the opening of Prokofiev's Concerto n.2 is downright disappointing. The richness of sound production and legato phrasing so evident in recordings by an array of artists from David Oistrakh to Nikolaj Znaider is missing in this no-nonsense rendition.

There is something likeable about Swensen's honesty as a conductor, as heard in his clear approach to Prokofiev's beloved Classical Symphony. Yet when pitting bow to string, Swensen would be the best advised to re-focus on instrumental skills to convey the real message of these lyrical works. Less is not more when acknowledging the greatness of Prokofiev's solo violin repertoire.

The Strad
01 September 2005