This week I watched the DVD of Grigory Sokolov’s live 2002 performance, which ends with Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. Our attention as listeners is always drawn to the explosive last movement, for which there is a generous number of examples on YouTube, including Sokolov’s (Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, Precipitato). It’s really almost impossible for a professional pianist to play this movement badly – the only performances that are at all questionable are those that misread the marking “Precipitato” for “as fast as possible”.
But there’s more to this sonata than this justly famous and irresistible last movement; in particular the second movement, “Andante caloroso”, deserves attention as a substantial counterweight to the last movement. There are a number of performances on YouTube – not nearly as many as there are of the “Precipitato” – among which Sviatoslav Richter’s (Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, Andante caloroso) convincingly renders the middle section (“Poco piu animato”, “Piu largamente”, “un poco agitato”) as an extended quotation from Rachmaninov. In contrast Glenn Gould (Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, Andante caloroso) is particularly interesting exactly because he finds a way of attenuating the gravitational pull of Rachmaninov.
It is Gould’s sense of space that loosens the grip of Rachmaninov and gives weight to this movement. By playing the middle section more slowly than other performers, a minute slower than Richter, for example, but arguably closer to the markings in the score, he gives himself time to linger over dissonant intervals, sometimes even allowing them to decay into silence.
Gould emphasizes the startling modernity of this movement and prepares us for the driving force of the “Precipitato”. The weaker the shadow of Rachmaninov in the second movement, the more modern and substantial that movement sounds; the more substantial the second movement, the less it stands in the shadow of the last movement.