Notes on Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7 (in B flat major), Opus 81

You will quickly notice that I am neither a professional musician nor a professional commentator on music.  But I found, as with so many other things, that the act of writing while listening made the listening more profound or the experience more intense.  What I'll place here for you are the edited jottings made while present at a piano recital during which Prokofiev's Piano Sonata in B flat major was played as the concluding work.  Keep in mind that I have little training in music and so some of the terminology may not be particularly accurate or helpful to those with a greater understanding. Most importantly, keep in mind that while the music was not programmatic, my impressions of it certainly are--a human mind trying to make story out of a stream of sensation.

Called a War Sonata (sonatas 6, 7, and 8) we see Prokofiev, already a sarcastic musician at his most sarcastic (comments made by the pianist before playing).  The second movement is vulgar, sleazy, and naughty (not that I heard, but you must need a more fine-tuned ear than I have, or understand better the language of music to hear said vulgarity.)  There is an increase in violence throughout and a sudden calm with bell-like tones.  Perpetuum mobile in the last movement with an explosive ending.

Starts in undoubted modern idiom--the machinery of war very evident from the beginning--martial rhythms, though not a march.  An "unquiet allegro."  The dissonance is in the forefront.  But it slows to a disquiet commentary on the beginning. Silvery tension that breaks down into what sounds like an argument on the keyboard complete with shouting and insults and overriding, mocking commentary.  And when anything tries to be a stately martial theme, it is immediately taken to task and disassembled.  A chromatic greyness--a bleakness that thunders, then whispers--and then the argument resumes, rocking back and forth--thunderous shouting and oblivious commentary and then just stopping--thudding dead.

Second movement--not at all as suggestive as his opening remarks might lead one to think. Domestic--bright at moments, but threaded through with a sort of darkness. Bright twinkles but ultimately dark. Still an argument in the two registers, perhaps suggesting male and female voices. And then a swirling passage, chaos that climaxes and resolves into a dissonant bell-ringing--perhaps a second or a seventh--although the tonal interval doesn't seem to be broad enough for a seventh--perhaps some form of chromatic interval.   And again the alarm bells like the two-tone of an ambulance over the sudden quiet--not moving, a static, beat-holding ringing--it doesn't push forward, it simply sounds and falls. The bell fades away in a long silence.

And then movement three which starts in utter chaos and disarray. With a bass note recurrence a duotone that is the inverse (but not inversion) of the bell we have just heard.  Where as the bell was a rising duotone, this is a drumming, thudding, falling duotone.  To get a sense of the activity of this movement, think ant mound with gasoline just poured on. Frantic energy, wasting motion and activity, churning and thundering. The return of the bell--this time certainly a knell--the end of something--the absolute end and the piece thunders to a stop.

Of the three pieces presented at the recital, this was by far and away the most fascinating and engaging.  Next came the Schumann Piano Sonata in G minor Op. 22 (played second).  And my least favorite piece (little surprise here) was the Beethoven Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109 #30, which, despite instruction from my betters I found murky, muddy, filled with too much pedal and so compounding "rich harmonies" into a sort of murky soup of antimelody.  Looking at professional commentary, I was surprised to find that I had recognized baroque structures--including fugal structures. However, while they (my betters) note it is in strict adherence to baroque and classical forms, it sounded as though it wanted to move into the romantic era and set the stage for that movement.  But I can't claim to have enjoyed this piece--endured is more like it.

So that concludes my commentary on the performance.  I have a great many more notes on both the Beethoven and the Schumann, but I will not try your patience.  One thing I have noted with this pianist is a penchant for the German and Russian schools, and honestly it would have been very nice to have had some break from all the sturm und drang.  I know that the French piano pieces are somewhat slower and quieter and so seem not to call from the pianist the pyrotechnics and brilliance of playing that these might; however, a well-played Satie is not something easily done despite the slowness and relative ease of the score.  It is indeed in that ease that the potential for boredom arises.    I will hope for the opportunity to hear more Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and others of the quieter, more reflective French persuasion in the near future.  Even if I do not particularly care for it, there is nothing like being in the presence of the artist as the music is played.  It makes music come alive in a way that no recording can.


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