Classical CD Reviews

“PROKOFIEV: The War Sonatas 6, 7 and 8” = Piano Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 82; Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, Op. 83; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat, Op. 84 – Denis Kozhukhin, piano – Onyx

Mostly fine performances of these sonatas. But the slow tempi don’t always work in the music’s favor.

Published on May 29, 2013

“PROKOFIEV: The War Sonatas 6, 7 and 8” = Piano Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 82; Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat, Op. 83; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat, Op. 84 – Denis Kozhukhin, piano – Onyx 4111, 75:28 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

As Prokofiev biographer Daniel Jaffé points out in his booklet notes, the so-called “War Sonatas” of Prokofiev are somewhat misleadingly named. The first was completed in 1940, a year before Russia entered the Second World War, though of course the rest of Europe had been at it for a year by then, and war clouds could certainly be seen over the Soviet Union. However, the sonatas seem not to reflect wartime anxieties so much as the personal turmoil that Prokofiev was experiencing at the time of their creation. After a succession of hits, including the score for Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, which won favor with the Soviet authorities, production of Prokofiev’s next large-scale project, the opera Semyon Kotko, was halted by the arrest of the director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, on trumped-up charges of working as an agent for enemy governments. This was not the first of Prokofiev’s colleagues to disappear forever into the maw of the Stalinist extermination machine, and like Shostakovich, Prokofiev was for the rest of his life at pains to prove himself a true Soviet artist lest he share the same fate.

Also, the sonatas appeared at a time when Prokofiev, whose marriage to the singer Lina Llubera was falling apart, met and fell in love with a woman half his age, Mira Mendelson. Therefore, the twin inspirations of his new passion and his passionate outrage at the Soviet authorities seem to inform the three sonatas.

The Sixth Sonata probably has the angriest opening movement of the lot. “Indeed,” writes Jaffé, “there is a distinct whiff of sulphur in the Sixth Sonata’s opening: A major chord promptly negated by the bass leaping up Prokofiev’s once favourite diabolus in musica – the tritone. This disruptive interval holds sway through much of this movement. . . .”— indeed, right up to the development section, where Prokofiev has the pianist smash out a tone cluster on the keyboard. (The tone cluster was “invented” by the American composer Henry Cowell, or at least Bartók seemed to think so, since he asked Cowell’s permission to use the technique in his First Piano Concerto. That Prokofiev would turn to this brutally expressive gesture indicates the depth of his feeling.)

After this powerful opening, the second movement is ironic, awkwardly balletic—a kind of ballet of the pterodactyl chicks in their shells. By contrast, the third movement is a gently nostalgic waltz but with a whirl of disquietude at its heart.

The Seventh Sonata, with its quasi-military opening and brilliant toccata of a finale, is the most often performed of the three. Prokofiev’s message is more veiled here and is conveyed in the lovely second movement, which quotes Schumann’s song Wehmut, (“Melancholy”), whose text reads in part, “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart.”

The Eighth Sonata is the subtlest and most lyrical of the three, though it has a brilliantly rambunctious finale that still manages to maintain a certain Neo-classical poise. Perhaps by the time of its creation in 1944, Prokofiev’s passionate reaction to the condition of the artists in the Soviet Union had moderated. Possibly the Soviet war effort and the truly heroic sacrifices of his people inspired him now, as it would inspire his greatest symphony, No. 5, that same year. But just as Soviet authorities missed the anti-authoritarian jab in the coda of the symphony’s finale, they missed the irony implicit in awarding the Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas the Stalin Prize.

The three sonatas represent a natural program, you would think, but only a couple recordings currently available, notably Peter Donohoe and Boris Giltburg, compete directly with this one from Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. Giltburg’s recording on Orchid Classics was highly praised in press for the most part, although there were dissenting voices. I confess I haven’t heard either rival recording but am familiar enough with performances by the likes of Pollini and Ashkenazy to say that Kozhukhin’s interpretations are mature, fully thought-out, and impressively rendered from a technical standpoint. However, his tempi are almost universally slow compared to those of many among the competition. Whether this lessens one’s enjoyment is up to personal taste. I do find the first movement of the Sixth Sonata somewhat lacking in tension and menace. On the other hand, I was surprised to find that the slow tempi in the Seventh Sonata finale—usually taken at breakneck speed—and the long, long Eighth Sonata finale not only make sense in the context of Kozhukhin’s overall conception but allow the pianist to emphasize detail that I’ve missed in other performances. (However, I can imagine some listeners finding these movements stolid in execution.) I’m still not convinced that this is the way the War Sonatas should be played, but it is one viable way.

In 2010 Kozhukhin (b. 1986) won first prize in the Queen Elizabeth Compeition, and he has been especially busy on the concert scene since then, including a cycle of complete Prokofiev concerti with the BBC Scottish Symphony. This Onyx recording will help to further establish his Prokofiev credentials. Good if slightly clangorous piano sound from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in, where else? Denmark.

—Lee Passarella

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