Sunday, January 22, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, op. 84

The eighth is the last of the"War" sonatas, begun in 1939 with the others, and completed in 1944, at which point who was going to win the war was becoming evident. Emil Gilels gave the premier in December 1944. Like a number of others of his instrumental pieces, some of the material is recycled from earlier pieces for the stage. Prokofiev, a very fine composer of both ballet and opera, was unlucky when it came to getting the projects produced. Some of the material in this sonata was originally intended for a couple of Alexander Pushkin projects which did not reach completion. The first theme in the first movement, for example, comes from a film project on the Queen of Spades.

The Piano Sonata No. 8 is the longest of the sonatas with a playing time of around twenty-eight minutes. There are three movements:
  1. Andante dolce (in B-flat major)
  2. Andante sognando (in D-flat major)
  3. Vivace (in B-flat major)
From Boris Berman's book on the sonatas, here is the theme from the music for the Queen of Spades film:

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And here is the theme as it appears in the first movement of the sonata:

Click to enlarge
The theme has an oddly surreal character due to its wide tessitura and frequent large leaps and the way that the tonality seems to wander away from the accompaniment (which itself tends to wander, tonally). The first nine-measure phrase begins and ends in B flat, but by the time we arrive at the cadence it sounds very different from where we began. Prokofiev loves to go to or come from a place, tonally, that is a semitone away from what you might expect. In the third measure, for example, he arrives at a G sharp minor harmony where one might expect G minor, the relative minor of B flat. Similarly, instead of a V-I cadence in mm 9, which would be F major to B flat, we get an F sharp minor harmony followed by B flat. The voice-leading helps us to hear it as the tonic despite this.

One of my favorite things with Prokofiev, is to see how he has constructed his final cadence, always very original. In the case of the end of the last movement he makes reference to an augmented sixth harmony by insistent alternation between F and G flat underneath a tonic minor chord:

An augmented sixth chord leads to the dominant from the semitone above and below, here the dominant is the F and the G flat is the semitone above. Then he has a D flat major chord superimposed on a D minor chord (the F being a common note):

The final harmony before the tonic is a C flat major chord over an F major chord:

The F major is the normal dominant for B flat, the C flat harmony is how he "Prokofievizes" it. Recall that we have seen Prokofiev combine a Phrygian cadence with a normal one before. C flat to B flat is a Phrygian relationship.

But enough of this technical stuff! Let's do some listening. Here is a performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy with the score:

And here is a live performance by Emil Gilels:

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