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Piano Sonata No.6 in A Major Op.82

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Piano Sonata No.6 in A Major Op. 82

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.

The Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sonatas represent the zenith of Prokofiev's pianistic art, showing an altogether wider range of expression than their notorious style méchanique might suggest. All three sonatas were simultaneously sketched in 1939, forming a trilogy known as the War Sonatas. Only the Sixth was quickly completed, however, and the first broadcast and public performances were given by the composer and Sviatoslav Richter respectively in 1940.

One of the grandest and most powerful of all modern sonatas, the Sixth Sonata's first movement opposes and combines a notably terse and dissonant motive with a spare and melancholy subordinate theme. The yoking together of such contrasted material results in a fast and furious development where glissandi and clusters of notes played col pugno (with the fist) contribute to the general ferocity, concluding in a defiant reference to the first subject. The Allegretto's dance-like measures are elaborated with flashing quintuplets, and the music's constrained poetry surfaces briefly in a central meno mosso before a final parody of the rhythm resolves in a comically false cadence.

The third movement is a slow waltz, its sentiment characteristically qualified by an unusual richness of expression, but the Vivace returns us to Prokofiev's most lean and wintry virtuoso style. This commences with all the insistence of a tribal drum beat, and even a more genial idea, or a nostalgic reminder of the first movement, cannot curb such wildness. In the final pages Prokofiev's 'scherzoness' - his self-confessed playfulness - turns the music's general outline topsy-turvy while maintaining a hard diamond-like clarity.

© Bryce Morrison

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