PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 3 and 4 (Bernd Glemser) (Naxos: 8.554270)
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Piano Sonatas Vol. 2
Nos. l, 3 and 4; TenPieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in Ukraine, the son of aprosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered byhis mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition atthe age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Gli?¿re. In 1904,on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St PetersburgConservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and composer until1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev andMyaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov andRimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer,arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, nowdirector of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The ScythianSuite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemptionfrom military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the 1917Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, takingwith him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a balletoriginally commissioned by the impresario Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony andhis first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia withofficial permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. By1920, when life in America was proving less immediately rewarding, he moved toParis, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised TheTale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully staged in 1921. He spent much ofthe next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, wherehis music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country,taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first onslaught on music that didnot suit the political and social aims of the government, falling, asShostakovich is said to have remarked, 'like a chicken into the soup'. Twelveyears later, after the difficult war years, his name was joined with that ofShostakovich and others in explicit official condemnation, now with particularreference to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on thesame day as Stalin and thus never benefited from the subsequent partialrelaxation of official policy on the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable TheFiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after hisdeath, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.
The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of hisunfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas are an importantcontribution to the piano repertoire, in addition to his songs and chambermusic, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes ofthe Soviet state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with acharacteristically Russian turn of melody and, in spite of the expressedopinion of Shostakovich, an idiosyncratic gift for orchestration.
Prokofiev completed his Piano Sonata in F minor, Opus 1, in1909. This was not the first sonata he had written, preceded, as it was, by sixearlier works. He used for it material from the second of these, written twoyears earlier in summer holidays at Sontsovka, a work that he had sent toMyaskovsky as a one-movement sonata that he then described as 'efficient,amusing and pretty'. The Opus 1 sonata was published, after revision, in1911. It opens with a strongly rhythmic chordal pattern, set against thetriple-metre quavers that accompany it. A steadier gait marks the secondsubject and the material is developed and allowed a modified recapitulation inan essentially tonal sonata-form structure in a style that suggests Rachmaninovrather than the characteristic idiom of Prokofiev himself
The third of Prokofiev's maturer sonatas, the Piano Sonata in A minor,Opus 28, was also based on an earlier work, the Sonata No. 3 of 1907,and completed in its revised form in 1917. It seems to have been generally wellreceived and Prokofiev was advised during a visit to Russia in 1927 to beginhis recital programmes with it. It forms a pair with the fourth sonata, the PianoSonata in C minor, Opus 29, both of them carrying the subtitle From OldNotebook. The fourth sonata, also completed in 1917, is based on a similarearly work and an unpublished second symphony of 1908.
The third sonata carries the direction Allegro tempestoso andoffers a straightforward and exciting first theme and a more relaxed secondsubject. The music is tonal and the structure that of a single sonata movement.
The fourth brings more of the language that is recognisably that of Prokofiev.
The first movement is in the three customary sections of sonata-allegro form,with two contrasted subjects making their due appearance. There is a certainharmonic astringency, not least in the final chords of the first movement. TheA minor slow movement introduces its principal theme in the lower register ofthe keyboard. The theme is to return in a much more elaborate guise before themovement comes to an end. The final Allegro con brio includes subsidiarythematic material of gentle clarity and calls for an element of virtuosity inperformance. The third sonata was dedicated to Prokofiev's friend, the poetBoris Verin (Boris Bashkirov) and the fourth to the memory of Prokofiev'sclosest friend and fellow-student, Maximilian Schmittgof, who committed suicidein 1913 at the age of 22.
The ballet Romeo and Juliet was suggested to Prokofiev during avisit to Russia in 1934 by the then director of the Leningrad State AcademicTheatre. Political changes led to the rejection of the proposal, but it waseventually accepted by the Bolshoy in Moscow, though Prokofiev was induced tochange the happy ending. Completed in 1936, it was eventually given its firststage performance in Brno in 1938. Prokofiev had, meanwhile, drawn concertsuites from the score and in 1937 made piano arrangements of ten pieces,published as Opus 75. These start with dance for the people in 6/8 and aduple-time scene from the first act. A relatively stately Minuet isfollowed by a lively depiction of Juliet as a young girl, in an ante-room inher father's house accompanied by her amiable and fussy old nurse. The maskedball, marked Andante marciale, that follows is to bring the loverstogether for the first time, while the ominous music of the feuding families,the Montagues and the Capulets, familiar now in other contexts, is used in theballet for the Prince's command and a dance of the knights at the Capulet ball.
Friar Laurence, whose well-meaning intervention is the direct cause of thetragedy, is portrayed in soothing terms, followed by the rapid and whimsicalhumour of Romeo's kinsman Mercutio. The elegant dance of the girls with liliesseeks to wake Juliet on the morning of her proposed wedding with Paris and theten pieces end with the sad parting of the lovers.