Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, op. 83

A friend of mine was over the other day, a professional musician for decades. Only some of his repertoire is classical and he doesn't know Prokofiev very well so I played him this movement:

That's the last movement of the seventh piano sonata, the "Precipitato".  My friend listened very intently and when it ended he sat bolt-upright and said "What else have you got like that?" That's a very impressive movement! A couple of months ago I did a whole post comparing different performances of this movement and that was one of the things that got me interested in doing posts on all the Prokofiev piano sonatas.

All three of the "War" sonatas were sketched out in 1939; this one was completed in 1942 and premiered by Sviatoslav Richter in 1943. There are three movements:
  1. Allegro inquieto (in B-flat major)
  2. Andante caloroso (in E major)
  3. Precipitato (in B-flat major)
This is some of the most dissonant of Prokofiev's music and it is often hard, especially in the first movement, to locate a tonic. The middle movement is set a tritone away from the outer movements. Here is how the first movement begins:

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This kind of rhythmic texture comes from the Baroque gigue and the tarantella of southern Italy. They are both rapid, swirling folk dances, but Prokofiev transforms them into an uneasy, nervous, driving, intense movement, one of his most focused. There is no sense of B flat in the opening, the movement evolves towards that key, as we see foreshadowed in the first phrase which begins in C, shifts to B flat minor, back to C, to D flat and then to B flat. The middle of the movement is an Andantino that is equally uncertain about its key:

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We see suggestions of A flat, D flat, A major and minor and, yes, B flat. The end of the movement gives us an unambiguous cadence in B flat, though preceded with some of Prokofiev's characteristic misdirections (the C flat in particular):

The second movement is deeply meditative, at least at the beginning, with a haunting melody in the tenor range:

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And then the last movement, a furiously driving movement in 7/8 (divided 2+3+2) that seems to avoid accenting the downbeat so that you always feel on the wrong foot! While it is solidly in B flat, he contradicts that tonic with a hugely accented C sharp, the augmented 2nd!

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The harmonies at the end, one of Prokofiev's most interesting coda/cadences are these:

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An anonymous pianist has added the note "coda" on the second to last line, but I see it as starting a bit earlier, in the middle of the middle measure in the first line of my example. Suddenly there is a large harmonic shift to a D7 sonority: A C D F sharp A D, which is a second inversion D 7 chord. There is a B natural lower neighbor. This harmony, which might be tonicizing G major, instead moves to an A flat minor harmony in first inversion, C flat in the bass. If you recall, we have seen Prokofiev doing this previously, setting up one harmonic destination and then going to one a semitone away. After two measures of that there is a chromatic passage that echoes the augmented second of the opening, but on C flat to D natural instead of B flat to C sharp--a semitone above, in other words. This is a Neapolitan or Phrygian relationship, something else we have seen Prokofiev use. The last line has a scale passage in B flat and a strong tonic harmony extended over three measures. We don't actually get a dominant, that A flat minor in first inversion, strongly suggesting a Phrygian cadence, stands in its place, which we have seen before.

However successful or unsuccessful our attempts to explain what is going on--Prokofiev works more by instinct than formula--I think that this is a very powerful and worthwhile sonata.

Let's listen to all of Grigory Sokolov's performance with the score:

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