PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas 2, 6 & 8 – Alexander Melnikov – HM

Alexander Melnikov delivers his first installment of the tempestuous and alternately lyrical Prokofiev sonata-cycle.

PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonata No. 2 in d, Op. 14; Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, Op. 84 – Alexander Melnikov, piano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902202, 70:05 (11/18/16) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

A complete cycle of Prokofiev sonatas, of which this (rec. 8-10 June 2014 and 3-5 August 2015) comprises the first installment. The 1912 Prokofiev Second Sonata first came to my attention through Jean Casadesus’ Piano Literature class at SUNY Binghamton.  Dedicated to Prokofiev’s tragic friend Maximilian Smidthof, the music incorporates Prokofiev’s simultaneous gifts for acerbic percussion and haunted lyricism. The opening movement impressed me – realized by Casadesus at the time – with its multiplicity of moods, themes, and effects, all of which made Casadesus’ hands streak by in blurred, pungent motion. Melnikov – virtually a direct “heir” to Sviatoslav Richter – opts for a decidedly lyrical approach here, softening the percussive episodes so as to allow the polyphony of the five themes to blend, separate, vary, and gain in both ornaments and dynamics. The explosions really erupt from Melnikov in the Scherzo: Allegro marcato, which shimmers in toccata motions of a brief mock-march. The colors literally dance as the accents spread over a grand line of the keyboard’s registers.  The Andante has always seemed to me sentimental in a way close to Rachmaninov, a lovely, sad melody with rich bass harmonization that does acquire a more biting character as it proceeds. Prokofiev’s calling-card, his “mechanical ostinato,” becomes ever-more insistent as the movement nears its conclusion, though the tolling of bells infiltrates these last passages. Melnikov can cut loose once more for the Vivace, a moto perpetuo in the form of a wicked tarantella.  The music does break off, but only to introduce a kind of carnival, but more intensely iconoclastic than those in Schumann. When the secondary theme of the first movement appears, we sense that an urge to cyclic form will infiltrate the Prokofiev sonata opera.

Sviatoslav Richter testified to the awesome power of the 1940 A Major Sonata premiere by Prokofiev, the first of his triptych of “Wartime Sonatas.”  The sense of emotional angst derives from Prokofiev’s use of descending major thirds virtually at the beginning, complemented by a tritone in the bass. A Russian folk song mixes in with fierce urgency of triplets and a punishing fate motif, all of which likely nod to Beethoven. Tolling bells, agitated motions, and sense of harmonic anomie pervades the Allegro moderato, which appears to have abandoned anything like Romantic ideals.   The dance element in the movement acquires a Lisztian, totentanz character, and Melnikov does not sugar-coat the effect.  The ensuing Allegretto hearkens back to the ballet-master in Prokofiev, especially his Romeo and Juliet. While acerbic ironies pass by, an occasional “drunken” motif that might bow to Mussorgsky, the sense of the grotesque has diminished.  The lull before the mortal storm occurs in the elongated Tempo di valzer lentissimo, an extended moment of placating grace and appeasement from Melnikov’s colorful instrument, especially in the percussive middle section, which sounds much like the ‘Midnight’ scene in Cinderella.  The Vivace resumes the toccata impulse in Prokofiev, somewhat tempered by a grudging lyricism that must yield to some demonic, martial ideas. The pungent thirds from Melnikov have a most hypnotic effect, and the middle section, Andante, comes to us from another world. The accelerations from Melnikov testify to a blazing digital aptitude, as accurate as it proves frenetic. The stuttering motif now commands the stage in ever more obsessive motion, fate unbound, careening into space in a fiendish coda.

Emil Gilels originally premiered the Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major (1944), a work on which Prokofiev labored in tandem with the Sixth and Seventh, requiring five years, 1939-1944, to complete the sequence.  Transferring some themes from contemporary opera pieces, The Queen of Spades (film version), Semyon Kotko, and Eugene Onegin, along with the film score for War and Peace, Prokofiev constructed the B-flat Sonata, claiming it to be “predomInantly lyrical in character.”  Richter called the completed score “an abundance of riches.” The first movement, Andante dolce – Allegro moderato, offers three themes that appear calm and songful, but Melnikov equally exhibits those secondary motifs that bear a more tragic hue in g minor.   A fate motif – quasi Pauken (like tympani) – evolves that spreads itself over six octaves of the keyboard. The development is no less marked by toccata and polyphonic elements, as though Prokofiev were consulting Bach for some solace in the midst of turbulent emotions.  Melnikov establishes a mood of uneasy intimacy that appears to end quietly; but after a brief pause a volcanic coda, precipitato, breaks forth, only to dissolve most nebulously.

If the second movement, Andante sognando, sounds dreamy, the effect is intentional, especially since Prokofiev meant the music for a St. Petersburg ball scene in Eugene Onegin. The harmonic treatment remains distinctly askew in the Prokofiev manner.  But the bell-tones of the occasion dominate, providing a kind of mystic romance. This other-worldy, Schubertian mood will transform in the last, toccata-like movement in the form of three-part march in ¾ time.  The obsessive nature of this impulse – Allegro ben marcato – calls for a repeated figure of 180 measures.  In the high register we receive intimations of the first movement’s second theme. The mood clearly has become one of “war and peace,” in the sense of combatant sensibilities. Balletic impulses collide with aggressive, convulsive gestures, much of the confrontation symphonic in stature, the runs much inclined to serve in a concerto context. Some of the detached chords lie in a kind of musical limbo, something of Beethoven and liquid Debussy or Liszt, even Scriabin. Repeated, jabbing phrases culminate in a potent climax, an apotheosis, if Melnikov’s mellifluous rolling chords and brilliant flourishes provide signs. Might we suppose that we have passed the long night of political and moral strife to a declaration of victory?  Excellent piano sound, courtesy of Tobias Lehmann.

—Gary Lemco

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