Top 5 Contemporary Piano Sonatas: #2

#2: Prokofiev – Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82 (1940)

This is the first of Prokofiev’s “War Sonata” trilogy, and boy is it a harrowing journey through wartime emotions. For a while I thought No. 7 would be the one to represent Prokofiev in the ranking, but No. 6 just kept grabbing me. It’s deep, dark, and expansive. Each movement is unforgettable in its own way.

The first movement paints a clear narrative of war disrupting society. We begin with a bold motive of fast parallel thirds that create a blur of A major and A minor. It’s neither triumphant nor tragic, just loud and and ambiguous. This develops for a while (and makes the pianist never want to play parallel thirds again), and then a new, serene atmosphere emerges, based around pentatonic scales. It feels worlds away from the opening material. Is this a glimpse into quiet Russian towns before war strikes? The pentatonic scales become agitated, and a repeated note ostinato starts to fill the texture. The thirds are back, insistent, dominant. Prokofiev engineers a huge build that achieves orchestral levels of intensity, as the parallel-third motive and pentatonic fragments saturate the texture. It goes on for over two minutes. I’m not sure whether to interpret this as each city and town, one by one, rushing into action to support the war effort, or as simply a picture of growing destruction. Whatever the case, when the level of intensity winds down, it ends in a world-weary moment before an abridged recapitulation of the exposition. The world-weary music returns to end the movement.

I’m fascinated by the second movement Allegretto. The opening progression of staccato chords feels vaguely hopeful, but almost every chord has a “wrong” note that mutes the mood. Still, it forms a more optimistic mood than the first movement. My favorite detail is a construction where the staccato chords continue high up in the treble while the left hand rushes downward in a crazy arpeggio on each beat. If you look at the score, you’ll be scratching your head as to how to execute these runs at tempo. It’s such a cool effect: buoyant and kind of comical at the same time. A slower, bittersweet section forms a sort of Trio, before the wacky left-hand arpeggios return to take it to the end.

Prokofiev gives us one of his greatest slow movements in this sonata. Poetic, heartfelt, dramatic. The opening melody takes us through a variety of major and minor moods, polished with some elegant counterpoint in the inner voices. The first big climax alternates D major and C-sharp major, sometimes complicating the D major with dissonant sevenths. There are so many interesting harmonic byways after this section that are better to listen to than for me to comment on. Eventually the music gathers energy again, swelling with bitterness, to arrive at a new climax like the first one, but with grander chords and darker harmonies. This climactic material continues to burst out from quieter moments. It all creates a picture of fear, dread, and a sense of weighty events ahead.

The finale is a flurry of manic energy, playful and menacing at the same time. It’s a classic Prokofiev fast movement with super fluid runs and machine-like repeated notes, and definitely more variety of material than the finale of Sonata No. 7. One moment we hear a mischievous sixteenth-note line scurry around in the bass, and then an innocent C major melody floating along way up high. The first big climax is a percussive, foreboding statement in G-sharp minor. Interestingly, it comes not as the culmination of a crescendo, but as a jolt after the music seemed to be fading out. The climax kicks off a final swirl of running sixteenths and more percussive repeated notes in the bass before a true closure to the section. Next is a restatement of the first movement’s main parallel-third motive, in a slow tempo and set with slow, introspective gestures. It sounds like it could be an unexpected quiet ending to the piece until the running sixteenth motive jumps back into the picture, even more frantic than before, running all over the keyboard with some interjections from the parallel thirds. Eventually we get a restatement of the innocent second subject, but this time in A major – the tonic! Is a happy ending around the corner? Nope. The sixteenths return, relentless as ever, leading into an incredible torrent of sound. The only objects discernible in the storm are a ta-ta-ta-TA rhythm and occasional upward runs that sound like piccolo flourishes. The moment is shiver-inducing. Just pure terror and chaos. Somehow we emerge out this into a few final ff statements of the parallel-third motive, and it’s over.

After listening to this piece, little fragments of all four movements stay buried in my head for a while, a tribute to both the strength of the material and the emotional effects Prokofiev produces. There are quiet side paths and surprising details in this piece that do reward repeat listening and also reward the pianist who decides to take on its significant challenges. It’s a masterful expression of the horrors of war and simply great music, period.

Where to find it:

HL50159580   Prokofiev: Sonata No. 6, Op. 82 (Sikorski)

HL50484091   Prokofiev: Sonatas for Piano, Vol. 2 (Sonatas 6-9) (Boosey & Hawkes)




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