Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by Sviatoslav Richter.
Unlike many other musicians (we won’t mention any names…such as Joshua Bell or Sarah Chang), Richter did not rest on his laurels. Instead, he worked constantly to expand his repertoire and learn new music. Almost every one of his performances included a recent composition by one of his fellow Russians – Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and others. Over time, these contemporary Russian works became his signature.
One of the most incredible stories of Richter stems from his voracious appetite for new music and concerns the seventh piano sonata by Prokofiev. Prokofiev dedicated the sonata to Richter and asked him to premiere it. Richter agreed, and Prokofiev very reasonably assumed that the concert would be in several months. However, Richter confidently stated that he would play the entire thing from memory at his next recital in three days’ time. Not only did he successfully premier the work, but Prokofiev was heard to have wondered at how Richter’s interpretation of his music was better than his own!
This sonata was Prokofiev’s first experiment in what would become his very distinctive compositional style. Many of Prokofiev’s earlier compositions contain noticeable Romantic-era structures, but in his second Piano Sonata, Prokofiev began to leave those conventions behind and focus on the very unique harmonic sense that he is now known for. The brief first movement contains two themes. The first one should be easy to pick out, since it occurs at the very start of the piece and descends to a crashing halt. The second theme mimics the descending nature of the first theme but is more ethereal and less imposing. The third movement is the highlight of the piece. Dark, sombre, pulsating lines in the left hand coincide with a wandering line in the right hand as we hear the harmonic genius of Prokofiev come to life. Richter does a masterful job of creating long lines and phrases despite the disjointed nature of the notes. The phrasing feels so natural that we accept it immediately, but we must be careful not to take this for granted. The skill and emotional intelligence that it takes to create such natural phrasing amidst such difficult music is something that select few people have ever been able to do, and Richter is undeniably one of those few.