One of the most frequently read articles on this blog has been my interview with Lola Astanova, which I posted in October 2009. At the end of that interview, I posed the following request: “If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber. Is there any hope for me?”
It was not an idle request; all four of those pieces are special to me. The only one I have not yet featured on this blog is Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, which has been a favorite of mine ever since I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy perform it in Denver more than forty years ago. I hadn’t found a performance of it online that I wanted to share until I discovered the video of Evgeny Kissin presented below.
The third of his three “War Sonatas”, Prokofiev began work on the 8th in 1939 but didn’t complete it until 1944, when it was given its premiere by Emil Gilels. It is, in a word, a monumental work, impossible to appreciate fully after just one hearing. Even the great Sviatoslav Richter needed to hear it twice before gaining a clear sense of its importance. He said of it, “After a single hearing, it was clear that this was a remarkable work, but when I was asked whether I planned to play it myself, I was at a loss for an answer… After the second hearing, I was firmly resolved to learn the piece.”
Richter goes on to say, “Of all Prokofiev’s sonatas, this is the richest. It has a complex inner life, profound and full of contrasts. At times it seems to grow numb, as if abandoning itself to the relentless march of time. If it is sometimes inaccessible, this is because of its richness, like a tree that is heavy with fruit. It remains one of my three favorite works, alongside the Fourth and Ninth Sonatas…” – from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon
The Eighth reminds me of a Russian novel. Epic in its scope, it steadfastly refuses to be hurried. The first movement, marked Andante dolce (sweetly), is contemplative – almost improvisational – and deeply affecting. The second movement, marked Andante sognando (dreamily), is one of Prokofiev’s most lyrical creations, while the concluding Vivace – rhythmically compelling, fearsomely difficult – is music of great joy, marked by the playfulness that is so characteristic of Prokofiev.
This extraordinary performance by Evgeny Kissin was recorded at the Verbier Festival of 2009. One has the feeling that Kissin approaches this work with great humility, even reverence. At its conclusion we feel honored to have been present, even if only via video.