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Prokofiev’s piano sonatas : a guide for the listener and the performer (2008)
- See also: Piano Sonata No. 1 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 2 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 3 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 4 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 5 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 6 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 7 (Prokofiev), Piano Sonata No. 8 (Prokofiev), and Piano Sonata No. 9 (Prokofiev)
- Within the vast, virtually limitless piano repertoire, the piano sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev occupy a special place. Apart from Alexander Scriabin early in the century, Prokofiev was the only major twentieth-century composer to pay such consistent attention to the form, … They are a constant presence in concert programs and are considered an indispensable part of the repertoire by almost every serious concert pianist.
- Prokofiev had a lifelong love of the sonata form. Ever since learning the basic rules during his childhood years, he strove to master them; … In 1941, describing his Sonatinas op. 54 (1931), he remarked, “I liked the idea of writing a simple work in such a superior form as sonata.” One can learn a lot about the composer’s growth by tracing his progress from the early sonatas, which cautiously dare to bend the textbook rules, to the masterful treatment of the form in his late works.
- In spite of the many valuable books available today, the state of Prokofiev scholarship cannot be considered adequate: suffice it to say that the detailed catalogue of his works has not been updated since it was published in 1961. At present, there is no edition of the Prokofiev sonatas free of errors. I have tried to do my best in pointing out some obvious mistakes, as well as certain doubtful readings. Many questions cannot be answered with certainty, as the manuscripts for some of the sonatas have been lost; those that have survived are not easily available for inspection. To get to some of them, I was fortunate to have the help of Russian colleagues in overcoming the restrictions of the current gatekeepers in Russia.
Prokofiev: His Life and the Evolution of His Musical Language
- Prokofiev’s creative path traversed many countries and was affected by wars and revolutions. Life brought him into contact with some of the most prominent and influential artistic figures of his time. Observing the magnificent panorama of Prokofiev’s oeuvre, one sees that the composer’s musical style evolved significantly over the course of his creative life. The reasons for the changes of direction have been much discussed and debated.
- Young Prokofiev was attentive to new musical trends. We can find traces of various influences in his early compositions. Some of the piano works from the set Visions fugitives,op. 22 (1915–17), are reminiscent of Debussy; the Andante assai section of the First Piano Concerto, op. 10 (1911–12), sounds like Rachmaninov; and the harmonies of the symphonic poem Osen neye(Autumnor Autumnal Sketch), op. 8 (1910), harken back to Scriabin. These, however, were rather passing influences. Others proved to be more enduring.
One of them was the fairy-tale streak in Russian music. Russians have always been fond of fairy tales, which to this day continue to be an important part of every child’s upbringing. ...
Another significant influence was the Classical style.
- Prokofiev was not alone among the leading composers of the twentieth century in changing his style repeatedly in the course of his career: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, and others modified their musical language drastically at various stages of their creative lives. In Prokofiev’s case, he always maintained certain stylistic facets throughout the transformations of his musical language.
- Examining the musical language of Prokofiev in a more detailed way, we must acknowledge that for him melody was always the most important element of music, one that determined the quality of the composition
- Prokofiev’s music is usually based on a firm sense of tonality. Whatever tonal uncertainty and ambiguity one experiences, mainly in developmental passages, they are mostly short-lived.
Prokofiev the pianist
- The piano plays a central role in Prokofiev’s oeuvre. Not only are his works for piano solo or piano with orchestra numerous, but they also rank among his more important compositions. The piano was the first instrument Prokofiev heard and the only one he mastered.
- Many pages of Prokofiev’s oeuvre continue the important tradition of Russian music based on fairy tale–inspired imagery.
- Prokofiev was especially active as a pianist during his years in the United States. The titles of numerous reviews seem to refer as much to his compositions as to his performances: “A titan of a pianist,” “Volcanic eruption at the keyboard,” “Russian chaos in music,” among others.
- Prokofiev’s playing of lyrical music is especially noteworthy. His phrasing can be exquisitely beautiful in its dynamic molding (second theme of the Andante assaifrom Sonata No. 4; the middle section of Vision fugitive,op. 22, no. 11), and his polyphonic voicing can be clear and expressive (Sonatina pastorale, op. 59, no. 3).
- The playing of Soviet pianists of the younger generation differed significantly from the composer’s performing style, as discussed above. (Here I am referring to the generation of Richter and Gilels or younger, as opposed to Prokofiev’s coevals such as Neuhaus and Samuil Feinberg, who also had Prokofiev’s works in their repertoires.) Since we know that Prokofiev appreciated their playing, does it mean that he accepted their approach? Should we regard the new generation’s playing as a distortion of the composer’s intentions or as a natural evolution of interpretive style?
I believe that Prokofiev, having been exposed to the new performing style of the Soviet pianists, accepted at least some of its qualities. We can mention assertive muscular playing, open expressivity, and a gripping commitment to the music among those traits that brought recognition to Soviet pianists and assured their success in the international arena. These characteristics were concordant with the evolving compositional style of Prokofiev, whose later works became both more virile (often heroic) and expressive in a warmer and more open way.
- It is essential that a pianist meticulously observe the composer’s indications regarding tempo, dynamics, and articulation. These are all crucial in creating full characterizations of individual themes and passages. Far too often one hears unidiomatic performances of Prokofiev’s music in which speed and loudness seem to be the only parameters that matter to the pianist.
- Prokofiev had a particular talent for creating a fully identifiable mood within the first notes of a piece, passage, or theme.
- One of the most winning characteristics of Prokofiev’s music is its indomitable energy. In expressing this quality, stability of tempo is particularly important.