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8.553021 - PROKOFIEV, S.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 7 and 8
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Piano Sonatas Vol. 1
Sergei Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Miaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in the United States of America was at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully mounted in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
After the death of his father in July 1910 Prokofiev began to turn his attention to the commercial possibilities in the publication of his music, but without immediate success. During the summer he also began to sketch a piano concerto, which he completed early in 1912. This was performed in Moscow and at Pavlovsk, outside St. Petersburg, with Prokofiev making his first appearance as a soloist with an orchestra. The concerto had a mixed reception, wild enthusiasm from some and marked disapproval from others, to the composer's equal gratification. The concerto, after all, marked a significant change in Russian music, from the romanticism of Rachmaninov and Scriabin to a new world of clear and sometimes harsh contours. His Sonata No.2 in D minor, Opus 14, was completed at the end of August 1912 and first performed in Moscow at the Conservatory on 23rd January 1914. It was dedicated to a fellow-student, Maksimilian Shmitgoff, a close friend, who had committed suicide, informing Prokofiev of his intention by letter when prevention was impossible. The first movement of the sonata, relatively spare in texture, opens with a duple rhythm theme against a lower register triplet accompaniment, capped by a syncopated section that makes practical use of dissonance. A sustained chord in the lower register leads to a secondary theme in waltz rhythm, marked più mosso and impelled onward by motor rhythms that are very characteristic of the composer, leading to a lyrical passage, followed by a development of this material. In a recapitulation the first theme returns in the lower register, followed by the other thematic material, now duly transposed and varied, the movement ending in a coda that relies largely on the principal subject. The second movement, an A minor Scherzo, calls for some intricacy of hand-crossing against the continuing quaver (eighth note) pattern, framing a central trio section. The slow movement shifts to the tonality of G sharp minor in a tripartite structure that allows the material of the first section a final development, marked con tristezza. The rapid last movement, impelled forward by its opening rhythm, includes a brief reference to the first movement.
In the summer of 1939, spent at Kislovodsk, Prokofiev met Maria-Cecilia Abramovna Mendelson, Mira, who replaced his foreign wife Lina in his affections, with a liaison that might have seemed more acceptable to the Soviet authorities. It is from her that we learn that Prokofiev had been reading at this time Romain Rolland's book on Beethoven and that this strongly influenced his sixth, seventh and eighth sonatas, works that he wrote simultaneously during the following years. He completed Sonata No.7 only in 1942 and it was first performed at the Hall of Columns in Moscow on 18th January of the following year by Sviatoslav Richter. The latter later wrote of the disorder and uncertainty and raging of death-dealing forces in the sonata with the continuation of what man lives for, love and the affirmation of life. The sonata was awarded a Stalin Prize, Second Class, the first of five such official awards that Prokofiev would receive. The first movement, marked Allegro inquieto, starts with an opening phrase, unharmonized and suggesting in its conclusion the tonality of B flat. Before long the two strands of melody diverge, leading to syncopations of greater stridency. A secondary theme appears in an Andantino section, part of a modified sonata-allegro structure. The second movement Andante caloroso is in E major, now with a key signature, a feature absent in the first movement. The singing melody in an inner part, followed closely in the bass, leads to a central section of varied tonalities and textures, before the final return of the material of the opening, much abridged. The sonata ends with a final movement in 7/8 metre, perceived as 2+3+2. Marked Precipitato, the material is dominated by this asymmetrical rhythmic pattern, to end in a final affirmative and unambiguous B flat major.
Sonata No.8 is in marked contrast to the preceding work. Dedicated to Mira, his companion from the break up of his marriage until his death, it was completed in 1944 and first performed on 30th December that year in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory by the young pianist Emil Gilels. Richter considered this the richest of the sonatas in its material, but difficult to understand because of this very abundance. Prokofiev made use of themes sketched in 1939, associated, presumably, with his first meeting with the woman to whom the work is dedicated. A gentle melody is offered first, repeated in a varied version and further developed before an Allegro moderato. The movement ends with a return to the opening Andante dolce and the modified material of the Allegro. The second movement, Andante sognando, is in D flat major, with the shifts of tonality that now might be expected. Gently lyrical in its general mood, it is followed by a final Vivace of rhythmic contrast. The key of D flat re-appears for an Allegro ben marcato section in a movement of considerable rhythmic, tonal and thematic variety, that returns to a final B flat.
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