Saturday, November 19, 2016


Years ago an astute commentator on this blog insisted that I pay more attention to and evaluate higher Sergei Prokofiev. He was right and so I have added him to my short list of great 20th century composers that seems, these days at least, to include three important Russians: Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.

I've been thinking recently about getting a box of all the piano sonatas (I already have all the symphonies and concertos). One movement that seems particularly popular these days is the Precipitato last movement of the Sonata No. 7, the middle of the three "War" sonatas composed during the Second World War.

I first became acquainted with this sonata as it formed part of Grigory Sokolov's recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that was filmed in 2002 by Bruno Monsaingeon.

The last movement, the brief Precipitato, is a tour-de-force of motoric velocity. Even though it only takes three minutes to play, I am not going to analyze it, not today at least, as that would take several days. I sometimes wonder if Prokofiev is not more highly ranked by professors of 20th century music simply because he is, as the phrase goes, "refractory to analysis." Composers like Schoenberg or Webern, or even Bartók, are perhaps easier to get an analytical grip on because there is some kind of system that you can work with. But one suspects that Prokofiev is a largely intuitive composer, which makes the analyst's job very hard indeed.

A couple of things are evident just from a glance at the opening, though:

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You can see that Prokofiev indicates the subdivision. Odd time signatures like 5/8, 7/8, 13/16 and so on, virtually always are compounds of smaller groupings, usually 2s and 3s. In this case the 7/8 is divided 2+3+2. Another interesting thing is that there is no metronome mark which means that the exact tempo is very much up to the performer. One more thing I notice is that I tend to hear the basic motif (seen in the lower clef) as a minor third easing up into a major third, but it is written as simply a tonic going to an accented augmented supertonic:

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Most of the top clef I hear as accompaniment, except for that D in the middle of the measure that I hear as where the C# is going. This is the basic motif of the whole movement, so how you hear it is pretty important. Is it just me or would most listeners hear it this way? Let me know in the comments. This is a heard ambiguity, on paper it is quite clear. The bottom clef is the motif or melody while the top clef is the accompaniment. Both the accent and the C# accidental signal this as do the repeated chords. Some more ambiguities: this is obviously in the key of B flat: the piece starts with a B flat triad and ends with B flat in octaves. But there are no conventional cadences and in some places there are suggestions of E flat. Not to mention that pesky C#. We might tend to hear it as a D flat, but the C# notation suggests the leading tone to D which in turn pushes towards the key of D minor or perhaps even G minor which has the same key signature as B flat. But I'm not going to dig into it any further here. What I would like to do is compare some recordings. First, Lang Lang:

Just under 168,000 views on YouTube. I won't offer a comment yet. Let's listen to some more. This is Valentina Lisitsa:

Maurizio Pollini:

Khatia Buniatishvili:

Martha Argerich:

Vladimir Horowitz:

And finally, Grigory Sokolov:

Do I need to make any comments? I mean, it's pretty clear, isn't it? At least two of these pianists thought they were playing the Flight of the Bumblebee which is why they were hitting all the notes very fast. A couple of pianists played the notes instead and did a nice tidy job with some lyric touches. Two of the pianists took a bit slower tempo, noticed the dynamics and made evident the musical structures. And one pianist, the slowest of all, made the most of the piece. An example would be the way he made the B flat octaves that end the piece sound the most right of all the performances. But there were a lot of touches and details along the way, too.

In order from poor to superb:

Khatia Buniatishvili
Lang Lang
Valentina Lisitsa
Maurizio Pollini
Martha Argerich
Vladimir Horowitz
Grigory Sokolov

But honestly, did you expect anything else?


Nathan Shirley said...

Why thanks! The piano sonatas are great, but not always especially accessible. He's got a large number of suites which are fantastic.

Things have been very busy, but I do still really enjoy catching up on your blog when I have time -- always very interesting stuff.

Jives said...

Fascinating! If it's played too fast, you can't hear the 7. Sokolov takes the prize.

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure, Nathan. And thanks! I think that my first exposure, probably thirty years ago now, was with a box of the piano concertos lent to me by a composer. But I didn't further my understanding of Prokofiev beyond that for a long, long time. Now I would like to get a good box of the piano sonatas. Which would you recommend?

@Jives: Yes!! Listen to how the sixteenth notes bite in Sokolov's performance at the slower tempo.

Nathan Shirley said...

Definitely Richter.