Sunday, January 15, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, op. 82

Between 1918 and 1936 Prokofiev pursued his career internationally with some success. But he grew more and more homesick for Russia and during the 30s became something of an ambassador linking the Soviet and Western musical worlds. His tours in the Soviet Union were greeted with considerable success, so in 1936 he and his family settled permanently in Moscow where he lived until his death in 1953--on the same day that Stalin died!

Perhaps the most well-known of the Prokofiev piano sonatas are the three written during WWII and collectively known as the "War" sonatas. The sixth sonata was written in 1939/40 and premiered by the composer in April 1940 and by Sviatoslav Richter in November 1940. This was during the time of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, so technically speaking it was not yet wartime, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned (though they did invade Poland in September 1939). Russian musicologists do not use the term "War" sonatas when talking about these pieces.

Like Schubert did with his last three piano sonatas, Prokofiev conceived and sketched all three of the "War" sonatas at the same time before setting to work on the sixth in earnest. The high levels of energy and tension undoubtedly reflect the unsettled times even before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

After hearing Prokofiev's performance of the piece Sviatoslav Richter had this to say:
"The remarkable stylistic clarity and the structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had never heard anything like it. With wild audacity the composer broke with the ideals of Romanticism and introduced into his music the terrifying pulse of twentieth-century music. Classically well-balanced in spite of all its asperities, the Sixth Sonata is an utterly magnificent work." Quoted from Berman, op. cit.
It was also a favorite of Shostakovich. The sonata is in four movements:
  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
  4. Vivace
 The opening movement has a most distinctive motif, presented in a variety of syncopations:

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Apart from the rhythmic tension, another powerful element is the offbeat tritone D sharp juxtaposed against the tonic harmony. The sixteenth-note motif also returns in various forms in the last movement.

The two middle movements, a fairly cheerful scherzo and a lyrical waltz, are a relaxation of the tension, which returns full-force in the last movement, a tour-de-force tarantella:

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Sviatoslav Richter played the sonata in a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1960:

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