Saturday, January 14, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, op. 38

Prokofiev's life divides into three parts and the four sonatas we have discussed so far were all written during his years in Russia. In 1918 he left and spent time first in the United States and later in France and Switzerland. The fifth piano sonata was written in Paris in 1923 and was the only one in this genre (excluding some sonatinas) until the "War" sonatas, written after he returned to what was then the Soviet Union.

Every composer seems to have particular moods or modes that recur in different pieces and one of the most characteristic of Prokofiev is his "Evil Music-box" mode. I haven't mentioned it as such, but we have heard some examples of it in the second and third sonatas especially. Berman relates this to the Russian obsession with fairy-tales, especially in their spooky grotesquerie. The Sonata No. 5 is replete with eerie music that sounds sometimes like a Classical era piano sonata heard in a dream or, at other times, like one heard in a nightmare! Just as he showed in his Classical Symphony, Prokofiev had a real gift for re-thinking the Classical style. The opening of the first movement is an excellent example. Let's listen to the whole sonata. The pianist is Anatoly Vedernikov:

The sonata alternates very consonant passages in neo-classical style with some very strong dissonances (especially in the last movement). I am always interested in just how Prokofiev adapts tonal harmony to his uses, especially in cadences, where tonality is most strongly defined. The cadence ending the last movement is a fascinating example:

The piece is in C major and the final chord is a simple tonic in root position (with a little grace note leading tone in the bass). Pretty simple for Prokofiev. But it is the chord before that is interesting. So far every final cadence we have looked at has had some kind of altered dominant in penultimate position. But not here. The dominant in C major is spelled GBD often with the seventh F. The only note from that collection here is a solitary D buried in the middle! This chord is A flat, D, F sharp, B, another F sharp and C! What the heck is that? What it most closely resembles is an augmented sixth chord (A flat to F sharp is an augmented sixth), especially the French augmented sixth which in C major is spelled A flat, C, D, F sharp. Pretty much exactly this chord, particularly if you see that B as an appoggiatura. But an augmented sixth chord's function is to be a strong preparation for the dominant. That A flat is supposed to go to G, as is the F sharp. Instead, Prokofiev just omits the dominant entirely and goes right to the tonic. And somehow it works. Rather nice, actually.

There are two versions of this sonata. The second, done in 1952, shortly before Prokofiev's death, has a lot of small changes, especially in the last movement. That cadence I quoted above is from the second version. Prokofiev thought the changes were significant enough that he gave the second version a new opus number: op. 135.

Let's hear another performance of the piece. The pianist is Boris Berman:

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