Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 83 Pianist – Glenn Gould

Sergei Prokofiev

In 1939, Prokofiev began work on his 6th, 7th, and 8th piano sonatas, which would come to be known as his “War Sonatas” and which would turn out to be three of his best known and most important works for solo piano. He worked on them simultane­ously, setting one aside when inspiration flagged and turning to one of the others. The Sixth was completed in 1940 and the Seventh in ’42, and both were given their premiere by Sviatoslav Richter. The Eighth was finished in 1944, and was premiered by Emil Gilels.

The following description of the Seventh was written by Robert Cummings for allmusic.com.

This is the middle panel in Prokofiev’s grand trilogy of works called War Sonatas. It is the most popular of the three and, at about 16 or 17 minutes, the shortest as well. The first movement, marked Allegro inquieto, opens with a dark, menacing theme whose militaristic vehemence seizes the expressive reins at times with insistent bass chords that hammer out a crushing rhythm. The listener immediately senses a connection to war and struggle in this lively but conflicted opening. A lyrical second theme introduces gentler music, but does not break the dark mood. In the development section, a tense buildup constructed mainly on the first theme leads to a powerful climax, after which the music gradually becomes more tranquil, the second theme being reprised in a gloomy ethereality. A brief, rhythmic coda follows, its lively springiness seeming to sputter and stagger as it reaches the finish line.

The second movement is marked Andante caloroso and features a consoling main theme whose gently rocking lilt and overripe textures convey an almost decadent sense, as if its beauty is beginning to decay. Some listeners hear it as a kind of dark salon-like creation in its perfume-drenched melancholy and quasi-pop catchiness. The middle section turns intense and climaxes in a tolling-bell passage that eventually gives way to a reprise of the main theme.

The Precipitato finale is the most famous and dramatic movement of the three. Cast in an ABCBA structure, it opens with a driving main theme whose rhythmic jazzy elements convey a frenetic, fight-for-dear-life sense. The second theme maintains the perpetual-motion drive, but now the feeling of desperation takes on an insistent, if less harried manner, before yielding to the ensuing idea, which rises from the bass regions to turn almost subdued in the upper ranges. After the second theme reappears the main theme returns for a crashing, dissonant but ultimately triumphant conclusion in a blaze of dazzling virtuosic writing.

Glenn Gould (1932-1982) occupies a unique place in the annals of 20th century pianism. His recorded legacy is enormous, and includes almost all of Bach’s solo keyboard works. His role in bringing them into the concert mainstream cannot be overstated.  His stage presence and mannerisms were off-putting, however, and his interpretations consistently outraged many listeners. Today, thirty-five years after his death, his name continues to spawn controversy. For many, Gould could do no wrong, while others – equally vocal – regularly castigate him for what they see as the unpardonable liberties he took with the printed score.

Gould himself articulated the philosophy behind his controversial interpretations as follows:

If there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently, to approach the work from a totally re-creative point of view … to perform this particular work as it has never been heard before. And if one can’t do that, I would say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.

It was not a philosophy that would endear him to everyone, but I think Gould makes a valid point. Why would you record Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, for example, which has been recorded more often, perhaps, than any other sonata in the piano literature, if you have nothing new to say in it?

The Seventh was the first of Prokofiev’s sonatas that I came to know, thanks to a recording by Vladimir Horowitz that was one of my first records. Perhaps because I had heard it so often and knew it so well, my passion for it cooled over the years. When I inaugu­rated this blog, it was the Sixth and Eighth sonatas that I was eager to share, not the Seventh. It wasn’t until I discovered Gould’s performance, which was like none I had ever heard before, that my enthusiasm for this sonata was rekindled.

I think Gould would be gratified.

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Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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