About this Recording
8.554270 - PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 3 and 4

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Piano Sonatas Vol. 2
Nos. l, 3 and 4; Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75

Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in 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 composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov 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 1917 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 the impresario 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. By 1920, when life in America was proving less immediately rewarding, he moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully staged 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 onslaught on music that did not suit the political and social aims of the government, falling, as Shostakovich is said to have remarked, 'like a chicken into the soup'. Twelve years later, after the difficult war years, his name was joined with that of Shostakovich and others in explicit official condemnation, now with particular reference to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin and thus never benefited from the subsequent partial relaxation of official policy on the arts.

As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The 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 are an important contribution to the piano repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the Soviet state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, in spite of the expressed opinion of Shostakovich, an idiosyncratic gift for orchestration.

Prokofiev completed his Piano Sonata in F minor, Opus 1, in 1909. This was not the first sonata he had written, preceded, as it was, by six earlier works. He used for it material from the second of these, written two years earlier in summer holidays at Sontsovka, a work that he had sent to Myaskovsky as a one-movement sonata that he then described as 'efficient, amusing and pretty'. The Opus 1 sonata was published, after revision, in 1911. It opens with a strongly rhythmic chordal pattern, set against the triple-metre quavers that accompany it. A steadier gait marks the second subject and the material is developed and allowed a modified recapitulation in an essentially tonal sonata-form structure in a style that suggests Rachmaninov rather than the characteristic idiom of Prokofiev himself

The third of Prokofiev's maturer sonatas, the Piano Sonata in A minor, Opus 28, was also based on an earlier work, the Sonata No. 3 of 1907, and completed in its revised form in 1917. It seems to have been generally well received and Prokofiev was advised during a visit to Russia in 1927 to begin his recital programmes with it. It forms a pair with the fourth sonata, the Piano Sonata in C minor, Opus 29, both of them carrying the subtitle From Old Notebook. The fourth sonata, also completed in 1917, is based on a similar early work and an unpublished second symphony of 1908.

The third sonata carries the direction Allegro tempestoso and offers a straightforward and exciting first theme and a more relaxed second subject. The music is tonal and the structure that of a single sonata movement. The fourth brings more of the language that is recognisably that of Prokofiev. The first movement is in the three customary sections of sonata-allegro form, with two contrasted subjects making their due appearance. There is a certain harmonic astringency, not least in the final chords of the first movement. The A minor slow movement introduces its principal theme in the lower register of the keyboard. The theme is to return in a much more elaborate guise before the movement comes to an end. The final Allegro con brio includes subsidiary thematic material of gentle clarity and calls for an element of virtuosity in performance. The third sonata was dedicated to Prokofiev's friend, the poet Boris Verin (Boris Bashkirov) and the fourth to the memory of Prokofiev's closest friend and fellow-student, Maximilian Schmittgof, who committed suicide in 1913 at the age of 22.

The ballet Romeo and Juliet was suggested to Prokofiev during a visit to Russia in 1934 by the then director of the Leningrad State Academic Theatre. Political changes led to the rejection of the proposal, but it was eventually accepted by the Bolshoy in Moscow, though Prokofiev was induced to change the happy ending. Completed in 1936, it was eventually given its first stage performance in Brno in 1938. Prokofiev had, meanwhile, drawn concert suites from the score and in 1937 made piano arrangements of ten pieces, published as Opus 75. These start with dance for the people in 6/8 and a duple-time scene from the first act. A relatively stately Minuet is followed by a lively depiction of Juliet as a young girl, in an ante-room in her father's house accompanied by her amiable and fussy old nurse. The masked ball, marked Andante marciale, that follows is to bring the lovers together for the first time, while the ominous music of the feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, familiar now in other contexts, is used in the ballet for the Prince's command and a dance of the knights at the Capulet ball. Friar Laurence, whose well-meaning intervention is the direct cause of the tragedy, is portrayed in soothing terms, followed by the rapid and whimsical humour of Romeo's kinsman Mercutio. The elegant dance of the girls with lilies seeks to wake Juliet on the morning of her proposed wedding with Paris and the ten pieces end with the sad parting of the lovers.

Keith Anderson

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