First Prize winner of the 2010 Montreal International Musical Competition, violinist Benjamin Beilman is rapidly gaining attention for his “impeccable” playing and “eloquence and flair” [...]
They spoke about it
Complete Violin Sonatas
My chief virtue (or if you like, defect) has been a tireless lifelong search for an original, individual musical idiom. I detest imitation, I detest hackneyed devices. (Prokofiev)
Over the course of the 1940s, Sergei Prokofiev tackled the genre of the violin sonata three times: once for violin alone and twice for violin and piano. Yet the three illuminate his work in such apparently contradictory (though fundamentally complementary) ways that it would be futile to try and draw parallels among them. “I want nothing better, more flexible or more complete than the sonata form, which contains everything necessary for my structural purposes,” Prokofiev had stated a decade earlier.
Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 80
It is said that the first sketches of the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 80 date from 1938, after Prokofiev heard Handel’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D. Overwhelmed by many different commissions (operas, ballets, film scores) and obsessed with finishing the monumental sixth, seventh and eighth piano sonatas, he did not put the final touches on it until eight years later. Reminiscent of his two violin concertos, the work possesses an undeniable spirit and thematic opulence. Upon reading the score for the first time, David Oistrakh, who premiered it on January 23, 1946, apparently exclaimed, “I can say without the slightest exaggeration that nothing written for the violin for years, here or elsewhere, can equal the beauty and depth of this piece.” Also present was the composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, who was moved by its depth and did not hesitate to call the sonata a “work of genius,” telling Prokofiev, “Do you realize what you have written?” Indeed, when it came time to select from among Prokofiev’s works to honour his memory at his funeral, Oistrakh performed the sonata’s first and third movements. “I never worked with such passion on any other work. Until the sonata’s first public performance, I couldn’t play or think about anything else,” he recalled.
Sombre, tragic and dense, the work can even evoke a certain uneasiness at times. Prokofiev apparently told Oistrakh that the passage of threatening scales in the “Andante assai” should recall “the wind in a cemetery.” One mustn’t forget that in 1938, when the composer was setting down the work’s initial structures (start of the first movement, exposition of the second, and theme of the third), some seven million Russians had been arrested, including many artists, among them the writer Osip Mandelstam. While most served their sentences in the gulag, nearly a half-million prominent figures were murdered.
The opening measures conjure up visions of soldiers fallen in combat and of disquieting immobility before the violin seems to withdraw into itself; Prokofiev even paraphrases the last theme of his String Quartet No. 1. Both instruments employ a similar threatening humour, which resolves into a series of chiming chords (with the impression of a church chorale reinforced by the addition of a lower octave). The “Allegro brusco” that follows seems to have been conceived of as a duel between violin and piano, allowing the two protagonists to eliminate any trace of the hostility accumulated during the previous movement. The piano at times tries to subdue the violin, while the latter obscures a certain lyricism associated with the instrument. The limpid “Andante” is an ethereal lament in which the muted violin tries to contain violence and despair. A whimsical “Allegrissimo,” featuring a constant alternation of measures in 5/8, 7/8 and 8/8 that keeps the listener constantly off balance, ends the work.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Major, Op. 94bis
In 1943, yielding to the charms of the flute, Prokofiev decided to write a sonata for it of “classical sonority, clear and transparent.” David Oistrakh immediately saw the work’s potential and suggested that Prokofiev adapt it for violin. “As Serguei Sergeevich suggested, I provided two or three variants for each place in the Sonata that required editing,” Oistrakh recounted later. “Then I numbered them and gave them to him to look over. With a pencil, he marked what he found suitable and made a few corrections.” The violinist premiered this new version of the work, published as Op. 94b, on June 17, 1944 in Moscow, accompanied by Lev Oborin. The work has since enjoyed enormous popularity in this form among performers and audiences alike.
Though carefree on the surface and in the luminous key of D major, which Prokofiev used in his Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”) and his Violin Concerto No. 1, this sonata nevertheless also harbours a vague sense of unease at its epicentre, the dream-like third movement recalling the sense of desolation of the first sonata’s “Andante.” The opening “Moderato,” with its initial theme anchored in the tonic and dominant, adopts a classical sonata form up until the repeat of the exposition. In the middle section of the scherzo, Prokofiev opts for a lyrical treatment of the material, with a minimal accompaniment that is, however, occasionally tinged with dissonances (seconds and minor ninths), allowing the solo instrument to shine. The last movement, a sarcastic re-reading of piano exercises in octaves, also recalls the advance of mechanization and industrialization of the Soviet era.
Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 115
Though written in 1947, the Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 115 would not be heard for the first time until 1960, seven years after Prokofiev’s death. He had conceived of the work as a sizeable etude, sufficiently accessible from a technical standpoint to be played in unison by a group of about twenty students, a widespread teaching practice in Russia at the time. While its performance would not seem to demand virtuosic abilities, it is nevertheless a work that requires control and a delicate touch if the pitfalls of a deceptive banality are to be avoided. The first movement opens with a bouncy gesture in spiccato broken chords before taking on the appearance of a village ball. The theme and variations that follow achieve a certain charm before being swept away by a lively mazurka.