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

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.

Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mozart: Fantasy and Fugue in C major Pianist – Glenn Gould

I have a confession to make.  Though it pains me to say it, as a rule I am not enamored of the music of Mozart.  This may be heresy, but the trust between a blogger and his readers is sacrosanct; I cannot tell a lie.  No matter how much of Mozart’s music I hear – and I hear a lot of it – I usually feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party to which everyone has been invited except me.  And what a party!  How many cities now host their own annual Mostly Mozart festival?  My local classical music station, KING FM, which already features an hour of Mozart every morning, is even celebrating “31 Days of Mozart” with a piece by Mozart every hour for the month of January. Yet, though his genius was obvious, his mastery undeniable, and his legacy simply colossal, most of Mozart’s music leaves me unmoved.

Am I the only one who feels this way?  I acknowledge that much of Mozart’s music is beautiful, but even the beautiful parts usually seem to be more a demonstration of Mozart’s gift, than a journey into the heart and soul of an artist.  It is as if, when Mozart sat down to compose, he simply opened a vein, and the music that coursed through his system like so many red corpuscles spilled out in a profusion of symphonies, concertos, sonatas, operas, and chamber music, without any particular creative labor on his part.

Having said that, I am happy to say that this piece, the Fantasy and Fugue in C major, is one that I love unreservedly.  It is as if, for this piece, Mozart tapped a more personal source of inspiration and, this time at least, put his genius at the service of his emotions.  As played here by Glenn Gould, it holds the listener enthralled from the mysterious first bars of the fantasy all the way through the power, majesty, and joy of the fugue.  Bravo to both the composer and the executant!

Published in: on January 5, 2011 at 12:02 am  Comments (2)  
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Johann Sebastian Bach: Italian Concerto Pianist – Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould at age 13 with his dog Nick.

Last month, as I was returning home from a quick trip to Bellingham, I heard Glenn Gould’s extraordinary recording of Bach’s Italian Concerto on my favorite radio station: KING-FM in Seattle.  I had first heard this record when I was in high school, but it had been many years since I last heard it.  I had forgotten how jaunty the first movement sounds under his fingers, how brooding and introspective the second, how uninhibitedly joyful the third.  But it all came back in a moment, and I knew right away that I wanted to feature it on this blog.

To my great delight, I found that not only was there a video on YouTube of Gould playing the Italian Concerto, but this video was part of a lengthy documentary that chronicles the recording of the very performance I knew and loved, and offers some fascinating glimpses of Gould the man.

Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould’s musical gifts were manifest at a young age.  He enjoyed a brilliant – though unusually short – concert career, before forsaking the concert stage at the age of 31 to focus on making records.  He recorded extensively, and by the time of his untimely death at age 50, enjoyed world-wide popularity and critical acclaim.

What set Gould apart from other pianists was his exceptional individuality.  I suspect that he had something of the provocateur in his nature, and have often wondered if as a young man he didn’t make a pact with himself never to play a piece if he couldn’t bring something new and unexpected to the performance.  His repertoire, though it included much standard fare, also included a great deal that had been neglected.  His tempi were often much slower or faster than other pianists’, and his interpretations were regularly characterized as eccentric.

Nevertheless, his playing always displayed absolute conviction, and his interpretations stand up very well to the test of time.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Italian Concerto by Bach, which I consider definitive.

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 9:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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