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8.555030 - PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6 and 9
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6 and 9

Although the piano was Sergey Prokofiev’s main instrument and piano music covers the whole of his creative life, the cycle of nine piano sonatas emerged sporadically and unevenly over its course. Three of the first five sonatas were drawn, in whole or in part, from works composed during his student years, the following three appeared at regular intervals before and during the so-called Great Patriotic War, while the final sonata is one of the finest examples of the simpler musical trajectory that, owing to increasing ill health, Prokofiev was able to pursue only fitfully in his last years.

Composed during 1923, the Fifth Piano Sonata reflects Prokofiev’s fascination with the cultural maelstrom that was Paris at the time. Avoiding the rhetoric and virtuosity of his earlier sonatas, the influence of Stravinsky and Les Six is evident in its outwardly classical outlines and formal clarity, though the harmonic thinking is far from the neo-Baroque aesthetic then being advocated. Perhaps because of its quirky but undemonstrative combination of old and new, the work was coolly received at its Paris première in March 1924, though the composer thought well enough of it to undertake a revision, principally centred on the final movement, during 1952-3, when it became the only one of a number of planned compositions and revisions to reach fruition before his death.

The Allegro tranquillo opens with a calmly flowing theme, melody and accompaniment closely intertwined, with a harmonically more speculative idea as contrast. The development proceeds in surprisingly agitated terms, the first theme returning at its height and continuing as before. The second theme, now more restive, leads to a brief, laconic coda. The Andantino is an insouciant intermezzo, the harmonic dissonance of which is checked by the regular, walking bass-line. A thoughtful central section scarcely alters the prevailing mood, as the movement wends its way to an ironic half close. Marked Un poco allegretto the following movement initially recalls the first in more animated terms, though with an even more heated development and a mechanistic feel to the main theme on its return.

A brusque coda, largely a product of the revision, wraps up the work in an unexpectedly defiant manner.

Sixteen years were to pass before Prokofiev again embarked upon a designated sonata, but the outcome was three such works, constituting a trilogy of ‘war sonatas’, completed in 1940, 1942 and 1944 respectively. Perhaps reflecting the ambivalent circumstances in which it was written, the Sixth Piano Sonata is the most harmonically abrasive and formally disjunct of the three, receiving only cautious approval when the composer first performed it on Moscow Radio on 8th April 1940.

The Allegro moderato begins with a strident theme, the opening of which acts as a motto over the course of the sonata. There follows a dissonant transition, and the musingly introspective second idea appears in complete contrast. An athletic motion in the bass now gathers momentum, fragments of both themes being recalled as the movement reaches its apex, dissolving in a welter of glissandi. The opening theme returns aggressively, and the second theme, now more demonstrative, sees the movement through to an equivocal close, made more provisional by a final recall of the motto fragment. The following Allegretto opens with a lightly tripping idea, which opens out into playful repartee between left and right hands. A more rhapsodic theme provides contrast, before a return to the guile of the opening. The Tempo di walzer lentissimo is based around a lyrically undulating melody, redolent of the love music from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. An oddly Ravelian central section leads to an intense restatement of the main theme, which pursues its heightened emotional course through to a hushed, fulfilled coda. The Vivace opens in febrile mood, scarcely pausing for breath as a number of motifs flash vividly past. A pause, and the motto idea sounds uncertainly, provoking a stealthy interlude which binds the sonata together with uncanny skill. A hectic reprise of the finale’s own ideas ensues, the motto returning to dominate a propulsive coda, where it is shouted out with manic insistence.

The aftermath of the Second World War saw the completion of two of Prokofiev’s greatest works, the First Violin Sonata (Naxos 8.555904) and the Sixth Symphony (Naxos 8.553069). Compared to their heroically-imbued tragedy, the Ninth Piano Sonata, completed in the autumn of 1947, seems unambitious, even simplistic. Sviatoslav Richter thought so at first, and did not publicly perform the work until a sixtieth birthday concert in Moscow on 21st April 1951. By then, however, Richter had changed his mind, describing it as "radiant, simple and even intimate". Yet the sonata has had few subsequent champions, and even today stands as the most neglected of Prokofiev’s major instrumental works.

The first movement, marked Allegretto, opens in absolute calm, its themes treading a fine line between intimacy and poignancy. The development draws them into an elaborate contrapuntal passage which yet sustains the initial mood, before a recapitulation of the themes and a coda which surges momentarily before the half-regretful close. The following Allegro strepitoso is a sparkling scherzo without the malevolence found in Prokofiev’s earlier music, a musing central section of artless simplicity rounding off the movement. The Andante tranquillo has a radiant simplicity given depth by being heard in the lower registers, though an animated idea briefly ruffles the placid atmosphere. The main theme returns in varied figuration, then the secondary idea, with rushing semiquavers in the bass, provokes a brief climax. A new rhythmic idea appears in the subdued coda, anticipating the rumbustious main theme of the final Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto. A steadier but equally robust second theme follows, as does a central section more in keeping with the prevailingly restrained mood. The two themes are recapitulated, before a quiet coda recalls the work’s opening, bringing the sonata touchingly full circle.

Richard Whitehouse

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