Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
The lyrical element is the essence of Prokofiev’s nature, whether it be that of the man or of his music […] and it is deliberately that he chooses to turn it to derision, to make it grotesque, to disfigure it. Through all the distortions, dilations, sudden stops and about-faces that the composer subjects them to, his themes and harmonies remain essentially lyrical. So it is that Prokofiev’s Soviet works are a battlefield where his lyricism does away with the intruders, one after the other: the classicism that withers it away, the impulsiveness that dashes it, the dramatic impulse that blocks its way. And it is precisely this battle that makes his music gripping through and through.
—Vladimir Fédorov, Serge Prokofiev, 1963
Sonata in F minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 80
When Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) lay in state in Moscow on March 6, 1953—the day following his death, which was not announced to the world for a week since it coincided with Stalin’s—the most appropriate music that could be found to mark the solemn occasion was the first and third movements from the composer’s Sonata in F minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 80. The violin part was performed by Prokofiev’s close friend and erstwhile chess partner David Oistrakh, to whom the work had been dedicated and who had premièred the piece. One can easily imagine how that eerie, spine-chilling (freddo) section of swift muted scales up and down the violin’s entire register from the opening Andante assai, which Prokofiev had told Oistrakh should sound like “wind in a graveyard,” must have then seemed grimly fitting. The great Soviet violinist summed up his impressions of the sonata by stating, “Nothing written for the violin in many decades—anywhere in the world—could equal this piece in beauty and depth.”
Although the F-minor Sonata was completed in 1946, two years after Opus 94bis, Prokofiev had written the beginning of the first movement, the exposition of the second and the theme of the third in 1938, which explains why he designated it his ‘First’ violin sonata.
The starting point of Opus 80 may well have been some music of Handel’s he had heard in the summer of 1938, as he told his final lady companion Mira Mendelson (Prokofiev became increasingly estranged from his wife Lina from 1940 on), but the 18th century has little to do with this, one of the most stark, troubling and grave works of Prokofiev’s entire output.
The F-minor Sonata was conceived at a time when the Soviet Union was suffering its grisliest years of turmoil, afflicted by despotism both from within and without, yet it bears witness not to some hypothetical political agenda but rather to the inner tension of the soul as it is implacably torn asunder by the absurdity of reality. This is acute, penetrating music, so it translates distress not only through violence—though fury does appear to be the crux of the work, as in the main theme of the Allegro brusco and in most of the rhythmically frantic final movement; in the face of pain, it also attempts to put on a bold front (the second movement’s second theme, marked eroico) or to soothe the savage breast (the Andante’s flowing, bitter-sweet main theme). In fact, the more serious passions seem at first to be thrown about quite wildly throughout the sonata, and yet all is in perfect balance; if one does indeed feel emotionally spent at work’s end, it also dawns upon us that Prokofiev’s trajectory was clear from the start, that from the first brooding, obsessive descent in the piano, answered by unsettling repeated utterances and trills in the violin’s lowest possible register, until the reprise in the end of the “wind in a graveyard” section, Prokofiev has charted an almost inevitable course of introspection which wavers symptomatically between aggressive clashes and laden intertwining of violin and piano—both instruments, incidentally, being equally eloquent for such exchanges thanks to Oistrakh’s collaboration on the piece and Prokofiev’s proficiency as a concert pianist. To quote the noted scholar Harlow Robinson, “in this masterpiece, the mischief and high spirits so typical of Prokofiev’s music have been distilled, refined and transcended. Wisdom replaces wisecracks.”
Five Melodies for Violin and Piano, Op. 35bis
Lyricism is of course the key word in describing the Five Melodies for Violin and Piano, Op. 35bis. These melodies were originally entitled Five Songs without Words, Op. 35 and had been composed for the soprano Nina Koshits during a concert tour of California Prokofiev made in December 1920. Five years later, he transposed the wordless songs almost unchanged to the ultimate vocal instrument (as is well known), thus giving the pieces new life and a more lasting appeal. Breaking with the jagged excessiveness of many works dating from his early career in Russia, the USA and France, these melodies exude overall a graceful mellowness that one is wont to associate with carefree California, with even a more chipper vocalise (No. 4) thrown in for good measure.
Sonata in D major for Flute and Piano, Op. 94bis
In the summer of 1943, Prokofiev took time off from work on his opera War and Peace and the music to Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, retreating to Perm, in the Urals, one of the isolated areas where the government sheltered leading artists from the perils of the German onslaught on Soviet territory. It was during this brief respite that he composed the Sonata in D major for Flute and Piano, Op. 94; the composer tells us, “I wanted this sonata to have a classical, clear, transparent sonority. [Composing it was] perhaps inappropriate at the moment, but pleasant.” A year later, upon a request by Oistrakh and with his help, Prokofiev transcribed it for the violin (Opus 94bis).
The piano part was left unchanged and the flute part underwent only those adaptations that would have it match the new instrument’s idiosyncrasies. The D-major Sonata is altogether genial and witty, full of charm and appealing lyricism, a far cry from the harsh beauty of Opus 80. These characteristics, along with its key, make it reminiscent of the Classical Symphony, Op. 25. ‘Classical’ also are its harmonic straightforwardness (although ‘Impressionist’ would be a more apt expression, for all its shimmering coloration) and its formal construction—the opening Moderato even sees its exposition repeated. We are then treated to some of Prokofiev’s most sparkling ‘wisecracks’ in the wonderfully lilting Scherzo, to warm songfulness in the Andante and to the gratifying brisk rustic vigour of the finale, whose rousing theme cannot but bring to mind the composer’s most boyish tune.
© Jacques-André Houle