Out of the shadows: the Andante of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7

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Jul 282012

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.


Taking comfort in mediocre performances

 Performances  Comments Off on Taking comfort in mediocre performances
Jul 212012

Los Angeles: summer to summer

Summer is the time for looking back at the disappointments and surprises of the concert season in Los Angeles. In taking stock every year I always recall the remarks that the pianist Artur Schnabel made in his book Music and the Line of Most Resistance : “the majority of performances will be about halfway between” the extremes of “high eminence” and “insufficiency” and, he continues, “fairly similar to each other. Lack of vitality, eloquence and plasticity tend to assimilate uninspired accomplishments . . . “ When I think back on the amount of time I have spent daydreaming or being otherwise distracted during concerts I have always found these remarks to be more comforting than disheartening. It just has to be like this.

Disappointment came early last summer in two of the concerts given by Southwest Chamber Music at the Huntington Library, where the Loggia of the main gallery is an outstanding venue for chamber music with surprisingly good acoustics throughout the entire space. Among other pieces I heard a number of chamber works by Mozart: the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major K. 581, the String Quintet in g minor  K. 516, the Quintet for Horn and Strings in E-flat major K. 407, and the String Quintet in E-flat major  K. 614. Inspired performances of Mozart are very rare; lackluster performances are much more common and those at the Huntington were particularly so. I’ve long thought that one of the sources of the piquancy of Mozart’s music is the tension between his sheer inventiveness – which carries with it a suggestion of improvisation – and the solidity of his compositional technique. As listeners we can sense the structure of a piece – even without prior analysis or program notes – but we rely on the performers to supply the improvisational character. Unfortunately this quality was missing at the Huntington. I hope they do better this summer with a combination of predominantly French and Contemporary composers (www.swmusic.org).

In contrast the concert on May 11, 2012 by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic was a pleasant surprise. After hearing them on TV and in recordings I was not expecting the attentiveness, energy, and clarity that they brought to all three pieces on the program: Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Returning to Schnabel for a moment: I’m sure that in making his remarks he had no intention of statistical rigor and no doubt he would allow that a performance is rarely fixed at a single point on the scale. Even the disappointments can sometimes be of interest in parts and the more inspired performances can be inconsistent. Such was the case with the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky, which requires qualities in addition to energy and precision and in their absence came across as somewhat lifeless. But even here there was a surprise in the form of a bassoon solo played spellbindingly by Judith LeClair.