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Piano Sonata No.4 in D Minor Op.29

Prokofiev: Sonata No.4 in D minor, Op.29 (d'après des vieux cahiers)

One of music's true originals, Prokofiev dared to shake his fist at Soviet officialdom. His First Piano Sonata, Opus 1, (1909) had not, perhaps extended the language of Russia's ancien régime (Glazunov, Arensky, Liadov etc) but in Suggestion diabolique, Op.4, the First Piano Concerto, Op.10, and the Toccata, Op.11, he insisted on a more muscular tradition of speech, shorn of easy sentiment and flinging all discretion to the winds.

Reaction was swift and unforgiving. The composer who wrote such music, who dismissed Mozart, who spoke of the old outworn arpeggio-ridden techniques and who felt that the time had come 'to do quite well without Chopin', was attacked from all sides. A belligerent leftist from the start, Prokofiev's porcupine personality - all spines and quills - at once established him as Russia's most brilliant bad boy.

Together with the Ninth, the Fourth is the least played of Prokofiev's piano sonatas, and it is not difficult to see why. An often cryptic and ambiguous style does not yield its secrets easily, and the language can seem oddly exclusive and inaccessible to those born outside Russia. The opening is as cramped as the Third Sonata, is exuberant, and, despite several attempts to move beyond such confines, there is a distinct air of frustration. The end is notably gruff and ill-tempered, but the second movement surely counts among Prokofiev's most rich and remarkable surprises. A sombre melody rises above a pulsing accompaniment with dissonances that recall the cloudy romanticism of the Second Piano Concerto, and although there is a brief oasis of calm (pp and molto tranquillo), it is quickly menaced and engulfed by the principal idea, one both austerely and lavishly decorated. Only the finale, with its almost desperate gaiety, attempts to liberate the music from its dark introspection. Here there are enlivening touches of the grotesque, a moment of quiet, several stiff virtuoso challenges, and a triumphant close.

© Bryce Morrison


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