Eric Pritchard performed an exciting recital in the Nelson Music Room at Duke University on a late Sunday afternoon. His colleagues, David Heid and Randall Love, assisted on pianos for the premiere of Bill Robinson‘s Violin Concerto No. 2. Love also played piano for Prokofiev’s masterpiece, Violin Sonata No. 1, in F minor.

Pritchard opened the recital with Sergei Prokofiev’s first Violin Sonata, one the composer began in 1938, set aside during WWII, and returned to at the urging of his music collaborator and chess-playing colleague, David Oistrakh.* The premiere was played by the great virtuoso violinist (Oistrakh) with Lev Oborin in 1946. Exhausted with illness and fatigue following the tragedies of the first half of the 20th century, Prokofiev wrote very little else during his remaining years.

From the first note, Pritchard played Prokofiev’s commanding work with strength and conviction. It includes fiendishly difficult double stops and watery passage work that demands the nerves of a race car driver on a high speed motorway. More than the technical challenges, however, this composition calls up the emotional toll the composer must have known. Pritchard drew incredible sound from his instrument. I felt the chill of the long winters in Russia, the great fear and anguish her people must have felt, and the terrible pageantry of Stalin’s military might. As with Beethoven’s sonatas, the pianist is an equal partner. Love performed with airtight precision and might. Together they played with great artistry.

Born two years after Sergei Prokofiev died, Robinson (1955) native of Denton, Texas, grew up in a country increasing in stature and wealth, and in a generation that broke the sound barrier in terms of expression. Robinson’s second Violin Concerto contains many of the traditional violin techniques found in Prokofiev’s works, but his composition is a world apart. Pritchard said about his concerto, “There is so much joy in this work.” Indeed, it is uplifting and marvelous in many ways.

Given with two pianos in place of the orchestra, listeners had to imagine the textures and timbres of the winds and strings, but the performers played exceedingly well and created a sound experience that was rich. The first movement is entitled “Country Fiddling.” Like a caffeinated band ready for the mark, the three artists took off like rockets. This music is not for lazy square dancing but rather a competition. Robinson draws from the American fiddle tradition, and one hears it in the sonorities and style. Picturing an outdoor stage, I imagined Pritchard winning first prize. Of the three remaining movements, one might best imagine the colors of the orchestra listening to the second movement, “Between Earth and Space.” Here Robinson evokes the wide vistas looking from the window of an airplane. Like the high-altitude air, the textures are thinner. And in my mind, I could hear woodwinds. The sonorities are warmer (lots of thirds and sixths), and ending with open fifths and a lovely violin harmonic, I felt myself relax. The scherzo is lively, with fine passage work (as played here) and complex meter. And the final movement, “Sufinale” (tempo marking dervishistical) evokes the dizzying effect of watching Sufi dancers. There is a thinly veiled melodic thread within the thick texture – the racing tempo of the violin made for a whirlwind dash to the finish. If the sorrowful beginning of the recital left me feeling like a dish rag, Robinson’s composition lifted me up. Infused with his great optimism, the music lit up the room.

This was an interesting pairing, and the two large works made for a wonderful recital. Pritchard was at his best. His compelling performance would surely have pleased the Russian composer. I do look forward to hearing Robinson’s concerto with orchestra. It is very well-written and deserves a proper hearing.

*Oistrakh played Mozart with the Leningrad Philharmonic in his only appearance in Raleigh, during the Cuban missile crisis.