Prokofiev Violin Sonata no. 1 In F minor, op. 80

performed by Shlomo Mintz and Yefim Bronfman, or below by Oistrakh and Oborin

(cover photo by Jace Grandinetti)

Confusingly, Prokofiev’s violin sonata no. 1 was completed two years after his violin sonata no. 2, which originates from his flute sonata that was completed in 1943. This work, the “first” violin sonata in F minor, was begun before the others, but took more time.

The composer began work on the piece as early as 1938, but it was not completed until 1946, being premiered on October 23 of that year by David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. The work is in four movements and plays for about a half hour.

The first movement has a number of themes. Interestingly, it’s marked in 3/4 4/4 time, a bar of 3 beats followed by a bar of four, but at the heavy, almost gothic-sounding pace and mood of this first movement, there’s no sense of mixed meter, at least to me. The movement trods along, in places conjuring up images of entranced, brainwashed pallbearers. The piano repeatedly emphasizes the interval of a fifth, played in octaves, and in the low, resonant register, it sounds church-like. The violin’s contribution is full of sorrow, either stillness in its unison with the piano, or heart-rending double stops and dissonance, and at a few points in this movement, the subdued, somber rumbles in the darkness of the first movement erupt into full, thunderous expression, but ultimately the movement ends quietly, with figures and gestures that will reappear later in the work: heartbreaking pizzicato (I don’t know how, it just is), and muted runs in the violin, marked pp and freddo, or ‘coldly.’ The composer would say of these passages that they are like “wind passing through a graveyard,” so one can’t help but think of the finale of Chopin’s second piano sonata.

The second movement, in great contrast, is in 2/2 and marked allegro brusco, and indeed it is. The violinist and pianist are both given the direction ‘marcatissimo and pesante.’ Marcato in music means forceful, and pesante heavy. It serves as the scherzo of the work despite not being in triple meter. There’s a spirit about it that would seem folksy and rustic if it weren’t so heavy-handed and maniacal. It’s as if it wants to be light and dance-like, but its gone out of control. Be aware of the use of triplets and a dotted figure in this movement. Despite the harrowing intensity of this movement, there’s a central, ethereal, dream-like passage that serves as much-needed repose, a trio section, and the movement returns to its frightful intensity, ending seemingly without resolve.

The third movement andante is just barely the longest of the four in this work. The piano enters first, with a dreamy pp legato figure, 16th-note triplets, like the rippling of light curtains over a half-opened window. It’s dreamy and quiet and satin to the point of almost being eerie, especially when juxtaposed with the previous movement. There is at times gargantuan space between the low register of the piano and the high lines in the violin, giving it a broad, or even empty, sound. There are points where the violin picks up the piano’s triplet figure from the opening, and overall, this movement has a crystalline dreamlike state, somewhat similar to the shimmer and glass-like nature of Messiaen’s Quatuor.

But it certainly doesn’t end that way. The finale is marked allegrissimo, and has three time signatures: 5/8 7/8 8/8, so one cycle, so to speak, has 20 beats in three uneven groups, making it wildly unstable but also driving, as if the second movement had settled a bit into its momentum. Despite the wild ride of meter and expression and texture in this movement, those whispers of wind through the graveyard’ from the violin return, and the movement ultimately ends in a tranquillo section, mute removed, in an 8/8 passage that finishes on a chord that remains on the palate for sometime after it stops sounding.

There is in this music an unavoidable dark, brooding nature, but also glimpses of pristine beauty, like when a glimmer of light from a glass or crystal catches your eye as one of you moves. It doesn’t last; it’s like a lens flare in this overall dark work, but it is to me an example of another kind of beauty. Performers will ‘dig deep’ to reach down and play a beautiful melody with all the expression they possibly can, but there are equally heartfelt passages here, yet they are of turmoil or sorrow, but of just as much artistic merit. It’s a matter of taste, sure, but in the overall palate and spectrum of what music expresses, this is certainly in a corner that deserves to be explored. Other pieces, like Shostakovich’s violin sonata, a very late work, are also worth mentioning.

Obviously, knowing more about the background of these composers, and the horrors they saw and experienced makes for good reading in understanding whence a piece like this comes, what someone like Prokofiev would have been drawing from, but that doesn’t dictate what it has to mean for you. Listen for yourself; one always hopes that there aren’t moments of this level of sorrow in life, but that would be a bit unrealistic, wouldn’t it?

We have just a bit more of Prokofiev left, and that actually wraps up this six- or seven-week series of chamber works for violin and cello, and then we are off to something that has been years in the making, that I’ve wanted to do for sometime. I’m extremely excited about it, but it’s still a few weeks off. Do stay tuned and thank you for reading.

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