performed by Matti Raekaillo, or below by Boris Berman
The second sonata of Sergei Prokofiev was first performed on February 5, 1914 by the composer in Moscow. It is dedicated to Maximilian Schmidthof, to whom the composer’s second piano concerto (which we discussed nearly three years ago) was also dedicated. Schmidthof committed suicide in 1913, and the second piano concerto had been written that year but lost in a fire. Some years later, the composer reconstructed it, albeit with qualities that show it to be a later effort than what the original work would have been.
This sonata, however, was composed much more around that time, within a year of Prokofiev’s loss of his dear friend, and I think it’s a foretaste of the kind of things the composer would do in his later ‘war sonatas’.
The entire sonata takes up less than 20 minutes of time in its four movements, and overall is a lean, transparent, straightforward work, but pungent and powerful. The first movement is an example of this. In its six-and-a-half minutes, we have a few little themes presented, the content demarcated by a few time changes, 2/4 and 3/4 and some little recognizable motifs. It’s concise for a first movement, almost terse, but contains quite a bit of bite for its seemingly small stature. It is at times lyrical (3/4), others angular and non legato. I feel like this first movement has all the ‘guts’ necessary to comprise a movement of twice its length, but its brevity is also a statement in itself.
Second in line is the scherzo, by far the shortest movement of the sonata, and words like ‘maniacal’ or ‘diabolical’ might be used a bit too freely, because I think this truly is diabolical. It’s unsettlingly almost playful, but in that Jack Nicholson creepy smile kind of way. It’s dark and disturbing. Interestingly, you will notice that the scherzo, usually in triple meter, is here in 4/4, but with a kind of wonky gait, an uneven pep that feels sprightly, but still not 3/4. The trio section, as brief as it is, is suddenly more legato, like quiet clinkings from a horror fairytale music box, before the scherzo returns, this time all in bass clef, at first. Sarcasm, humor, bitterness; can you smell them?
The third movement andante is dirge-like, with lots of thirds that seem to suggest the Dies Irae (without, it seems, ever actually getting there). It’s the exact opposite of the previous movement, having given in to sorrow, but even it builds to a passionate climax, a shaking fist. There’s a moment where the eighth-note figure is split into repeated sixteenth notes, marked con tristezza (with sadness), and it sounds empty, hollow, like a heart and a cathedral. Prokofiev pits the sixteenth notes in the right hand against 16th triplets in the bass as the movement reaches its climax, some of the thickest writing in this sonata.
But then there’s the finale, appropriately an assimilation of everything that’s come before: there’s the terse cleanness of the first movement, the swaggery uneasy deviousness of the second, and just a touch of the lyricism of the third. We remember here that this is, despite its almost manic changes in mood and expression, a very straightforwardly constructed sonata, and the vividness and contrasts of the themes in the finale make that clear. It’s also outstandingly pianistic, with some of the thunder and bombast that we would hear from the composer’s later sonatas.
It is different from the more outright gloom and violence of the second piano concerto, here showing some measure of restraint and confinement to a smaller scale, but still manages to give us a memorable palate of emotions. There’s an initial sense of runaway chaos, of bursts of crazed rambling, and some of the piano writing is truly splashy and violent, but the wheels never really completely come off. One could potentially look at the work as a remembrance of the composer’s dear friend, or as Prokofiev’s reaction to that loss. Regardless of the stimulus, it’s a poignant work of striking color and contrast, condensed down to its most pungent form and presented relatively early in the composer’s career. There is yet much great work to come from Prokofiev, as we shall continue (eventually) to see, so stay tuned.