Sunday, January 8, 2017

Prokofiev: First Piano Sonata

Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 1, op 1 is a short, one-movement re-working of a student piece he wrote when he was fifteen. The new version dates from 1909 when he was eighteen. Just for comparison, Beethoven's first piano sonatas date from his twenty-fifth year. Prokofiev later on referred to this piece as the end of his "early period" and cited his Op. 2 etudes as his first mature work. Still, this brief piece, only eight or so minutes in length, is not to be disparaged. It has a freshness and rhythmic energy that is certainly worth a listen. Here is Boris Berman, author of a recent book on Prokofiev's piano sonatas that I am using as a reference:

Berman remarks that the piece is unified by the similarity of the themes, all based on ascending or descending tetrachords as marked in the examples:

Berman doesn't talk about the harmony much, in his discussion. This is, I suppose, late-romantic-extended-tonality, that is, music that rests on a tonal foundation, but with a considerable amount of chromaticism and altered chords. Take for example the final cadence:

This is an altered V7 to i cadence, but altered in interesting ways. The V chord, which is major, giving us the E natural leading tone, is diminished with an G flat! Very unusual sound. And this is emphasized by putting that G flat as the bottom note in the chord. You have no idea that this is a cadence until we hear the F minor, in root position. Then it all makes sense. What distinguishes this kind of harmonic structure from so much of the modal harmony we hear nowadays is its gnarled strength. The inversion gives us a G flat to F at the bottom, very like a Phrygian cadence, but the rest of the harmony is V7 to i resolving normally. There is something very California mellow about all those flat VII to I cadences with no leading tone that are so often found in modal harmony. It is nice to hear a leading tone cadence that is transformed enough to be ear-catching.

Let's listen to a different performance. This is Daniil Trifonov with the first and third sonatas:

Berman calls the musical language of the sonata "traditionally Romantic" and yes, its passionate turmoil certainly qualifies it. Perhaps one difference is that there is more drive and less lingering in this than is typical in Romantic music. Even in this early music, Prokofiev is not a sentimental nor melodramatic composer. As a student at the conservatory he had a reputation as a ferocious modernist and around 1910 was asked by the organizers of a contemporary music concert series to give the Russian premiere of Schoenberg's Drei Klavierst├╝cke, Op. 11. These pieces, only written in 1909, were a crucial step in Schoenberg's path to atonality. Wouldn't it be fascinating to hear how Prokofiev played them? Let's have a listen, just to give some historic context, as they were written the same year as the Sonata no. 1. Here is an early performance by Eduard Steuermann, a student of Schoenberg's:

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