Thursday, January 12, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor, op. 29

For links to the Wikipedia article on Prokofiev, which I recommend reading for an outline of his life and work, see the first post in this series. Like the third piano sonata the Sonata No. 4 is subtitled: "From the Old Notebooks" meaning that Prokofiev took a piece from his student years and rewrote it. Nothing wrong with that, and it is rather characteristic of Prokofiev. Several times in his life he took an older work and did a new version so dramatically different that it is really a different piece. One example is his Symphony No. 4 in C major, originally composed in 1930 which he rewrote in 1947. The revised one is so different from the original that recordings of the complete symphonies include both versions.

Also like the Sonata No. 3, the C minor sonata was composed in 1917 and premiered in 1918, but unlike the A minor sonata, it is in three movements:
  1. Allegro molto sostenuto
  2. Andante assai
  3. Allegro con brio, ma non leggiero
Now let's listen to a Sviatoslav Richter performance:

Unlike all the previous Prokofiev sonatas, this one begins in an introverted, reflective mood. The motif of a rising and falling semitone permeates the texture in both the accompaniment (in sixteenths) and the melody (in eighths). This extends even to the final cadence, a V-i in C minor, but with added notes a semitone below in different voices:

Click to enlarge
 Notice how, in the first pair of chords, there is an F natural, the 7th, that resolves down normally to the E flat. But there is also an F sharp that resolves up to G. Then, for the final pair (each repeated), Prokofiev clusters the F sharp and F natural together in the right hand and a C sharp and D in the left hand. This pattern is then reproduced in the tonic, which is combined with an added F sharp. This is all consistent with the characteristic motif of the whole movement.

Boris Berman (whose book on the sonatas I linked in the first post) hears the semitone accompaniment motifs as references to Baroque trills. He also mentions the use of hemiola as another Baroque element. There seems to be an influence from Nikolai Medtner as well.

The Andante assai second movement is full of contrast with a bleak and somber chromatic first theme and a very tranquil and beautiful diatonic second theme (with more Baroque-style trills). The movement is in A minor with an important variation in G sharp minor.

Berman mentions that this sonata was written around the same time as the Classical Symphony (which was premiered just four days after that of the piano sonata) and he hears the third movement as a sardonic parody of the Classical piano style. The accompaniment is often a woozy version of the typical Alberti bass. There is also a return of some of the sixteenth-note semitone figures from the first movement. There is also a return of the kind of cadence we saw in the first movement:

As you can see, in addition to the four notes of a dominant seventh chord, there is also a C sharp (lower chromatic neighbor to the D) and an A flat (upper chromatic neighbor to the G) and the tonic has a D sharp lower neighbor to the E natural of the tonic. Oddly, this is rather a close cousin to the famous chord that Jimi Hendrix used in Purple Haze: an E chord with an added seventh and both a G natural and a G sharp.

Let's listen to a different performance to end. This is the young French pianist RĂ©mi Geniet playing in the 2013 Reine Elisabeth competition:

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