Twenty Comments on Prokofiev's Piano Sonatas, Part 1

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1. The cycle begins and ends with Beethoven: The cycle begins in stormy f minor and and concludes in luminous C major. Even the look on the respective pages is similar; compare the chords and arpeggios at the beginning of Prokofiev’s First with the chords and arpeggios at the beginning of the finale of Beethoven’s op. 2, Nr. 1, and compare the ethereal doodlings at the end of Prokofiev’s Ninth and Beethoven’s op. 111.  I don’t believe this to be co-incidental; recall that Prokofiev pitches his op. 131 in c-# minor, he modeled his first string quartet after Beethoven, and I also suspect that Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony lies behind the stylistic posture of Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony in specific ways. Further, Prokofiev’s sonata oeuvre resembles Beethoven’s in that both cycles provide a comprehensive overview of each composer’s stylistic evolution.

2.  The First and Third sonatas are not formally similar. It doesn’t matter that they both are orthodox sonata forms with lyrical counter-themes in the relative majors and share a tempestuous quality. The First doesn’t stand on its own, it needs other movements, which, in fact, it originally had, but which were subsequently excised. The Third is perfectly proportioned, with sufficient contrast and a satisfying design. By the way, the First Sonata is easy and fun to play, totally comfortable under the fingers, and is delightful in that is sounds harder than it is. Unfortunately, it is not distinguished music. But it is a great piece for precocious young persons to play at studio recitals. That’s worth something.

3. The second sonata is incredibly uneven. On the down side, the thematic material is totally mediocre, the transitions are amateurishly abrupt, and the piece is a hodgepodge of diverse and sometimes irreconcilable styles ranging from Haydn to Schumann to Tchaikovsky and even Rachmaninov. On the plus side, it’s pithy, and has one of Proko’s characteristic scherzos, and a texturally characteristic slow movement. We’re all formalists and “completists” in the classical music world, alas, otherwise, the middle movements could be profitably programmed as separable pieces, like opp. 2, 3, 4 and 12.

4. The Third Sonata is quite viable, but it too has at least two disfiguring blunders. The absurdly amateurish simple chromatic scale introducing the lovely second subject and the tacky tattoo on the neopolitan right before the final a minor chord. That’s a pathetic, tasteless and utterly formulaic cadence. In general, Prokofiev has way too many cadences. Look at the “Classical” symphony; look at “The Prodigal Son” (both ballet and symphony).  And another thing: if nothing interesting in this piece happens harmonically, and nothing does, why write in a sonata form predicated on harmonic tension? But the piece succeeds admirably despite these flaws, and that’s because Prokofiev, like Liszt, was an absolute genius when it comes to keyboard texture. He always can find a new kind of exhilarating toccata or splendid two-part invention texture. Also, he knows how to gauge a climax, like Rachmaninov. And he knows how to be lyrical without being sentimental. And he knows the meaning of the phrase, “Do the cooking or keep out of the kitchen”… Prokofiev, as hard a worker on his own terms as even Haydn or Bach, provides good, great, mediocre and bad pieces, but he doesn’t provide boring ones.  

5.  It’s ten for one and one for ten. But not two for two. Passage after passage in Prokofiev requires individual and imaginative manual choreography. Unlike Mozart, for example, there is a relative paucity of obvious melody/accompaniment patterns. You can think of your ten fingers as ten individuals, and you can think of your fingers as one mega-unit, but if you think about roles of right and left hands in conventional terms, you’re gonna find Prokofiev endlessly frustrating. There’s tons of cross-hand - that’s where my self-ballyhooed new diet comes in handy. There’s less of an impediment to the thoroughfare!

p.s. I’m not joking. Virtuoso music requires you to be in tolerably good shape.

6.  With the Fourth Sonata, we come to the first masterpiece of the series. It’s not popular, I understand. Because it’s predominantly slow, and frequently gloomy.  Well boo-hoo-hoo, I’m crying. That mean old Russky won’t accommodate my video game attention span. Wake up, pianists. This intelligent, superbly crafted and eloquent work deserves your attention. Richter knew this, at least. 

7.  If the sonatas were political candidates, the third sells its candidacy with charisma, the fifth with its character, but the fourth deals with the issues. It doesn’t pander, and employs something suspiciously close to logic in its rhetoric and thematic manipulation. Go ahead and make my day by pointing out that the first movement sounds like a Medtner piece as imagined by Miaskovsky, or that the third movement might as well have been written by Kabalevsky. Everything sounds like something else. I mean, doesn’t Olivia Newton-John sound like late Beethoven?

8.  Critics howl all the time that Prokofiev writes piano music for the orchestra. This is only occasionally true, and it’s also true that Prokofiev sometimes mishandles the orchestra in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with his being a pianist. And it’s also true that he sometimes orchestrates magnificently.  But the sonatas show that Prokofiev frequently adapts orchestral sounds and techniques to the piano. Listen to the beginning of the Fourth, do you hear a bass clarinet? And how about the bassoons at the beginning of the second movement, or the shimmering flutes and string harmonics in the c major portion of the recapitulation? Except for the First Sonata, which resolutely offers traditional piano style, all the sonatas offer orchestral imagination, especially the Fourth and the Seventh. My goodness, Prok marks “quasi timpani” in the latter work.

9. Forget the irrelevant revision of the Fifth sonata and go for the real McCoy, the original version. Like Hindemith and Schumann, Prokofiev’s revisions tend to be bad because they tamp and inhibit the wild imagination of the original. Vital works become boring. This is true of “The Gambler” and the Fourth Symphony as well. Rachmaninov is the opposite, by the way. His revisions help the team, especially the First Piano Concerto. The cool thing about the original Fifth sonata is that it is a collision between Stravinskyite neo-classicism and Scythian violence. The Soviet revision is la-di-da Soviet pap with a wholly incongruent climax.

10.  The revision of the Fifth is rendered irrelevant by the majesty of the Ninth Sonata, which is the apogee of Prokofiev’s so-called “white-note” style.

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