Violin Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op. 80 (1946)

Andante assai
Allegro brusco

Prokofiev completed his Sonata in F minor for Violin and Piano Op. 80 in 1946, although some of the material for it dates from 1938. This latter fact accounts for why Prokofiev titled it his first violin sonata, Op. 80, even though it was finished after his 'second' sonata, Op. 94bis.

The work is dedicated to David Oistrakh, who also gave it's first performance. The composer collaborated closely with Oistrakh while working on the piece. This ensured that the solo writing is truly violinistic in character: unforced, virtuosic and eminently suited to the instrument. Nor does it come as any surprise that the piano part too is demanding in its virtuosity, for Prokofiev was himself a concert pianist of international calibre.

The tone of the work is highly charged, but appealingly so. The magical aura and sulen meditation of the first movement is followed by a relentless bombardment in the Allegro brusco: intangible, will-o'-the-whisp dreams in the third movement are ruptured by the hell-for-leather cross-rhythms of the finale. The work closes with a nostalgic return to the ephemeral and mysterious atmosphere where it began. The overall form is reminiscent of the movement structure of the same composer's ninth piano sonata, but this sonata for Violin is much more dynamic by comparison.

Program note by Matti Raekallio

The Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80, is altogether different from its cheerful cousin. It is an uncharacteristically grim, somber, troubled piece - fraught, intense and passionate. The pervasive darkness carries with it many moments of great beauty, but, in general, the shadows are lightened only by passages that border on real savagery. One senses perhaps more anguish in this piece than in anything else the man wrote - and it was, in fact, the most apt that could be found to play at his funeral.

The first movement begins with a line in octaves, in the depths of the piano, alternating bars of three and four quarter-notes. The theme (basically four bars, but often extended) makes uncommon use of the interval of a perfect fifth - there is a falling fifth in each measure. In structure this opening section is fragmentary - as if it were being broken up by its own anguish. An interlude in B minor is so static that the piece seems to be marking time until it becomes able again to force itself forward. Fragmentary references to the first theme bring on a remarkable passage: the violin, muted, plays fast scales that cover almost the full range of the instrument, while the piano has a quiet, glassy chorale. The section is marked freddo - cold, chilly - and brings to mind T. S. Eliot's "wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass" (The Hollow Men). Prokofiev himself said it should sound like "wind in a graveyard". A return of the original four bars (with strange, stuttering pizzicatos, rather than trills, in the violin) is briefly extended by a few unsettled chords, and the movement ends on a poignantly empty chord - the piano's two lowest F's, held through under a quietly plucked C/F from the violin.

The second movement seems designed for the purpose of giving the players an opportunity to work off whatever hostilities may have accumulated in their systems. It is all about hammered chords, its brutality relieved alternately by a true Prokofiev march (marked eroico), passages of hysterical triplets, and a couple of tranquillo sections with a kind of lunatic charm, a sweet wistfulness that is destined always to be smashed. The movement is in a fairly loose C major, and ends (fortissimo) with the piano's four lowest C's and the violin's highest one.

The following andante shows some of Prokofiev's most transparent writing for the piano. Quite "French" in effect, misty and coloristic, the movement is in simple ABA form plus coda. The theme of the A sections is frequently played two octaves apart - one can almost feel the breeze from all the air in between. The contrasting middle section seems to have a particularly Parisian personality (though the Russian authorities seem not to have interpreted it that way). The final chord is, again, the lowest F on the piano, plus the tenor F.

The finale is fascinating, particularly for listeners who like math in their music. For them - and for those who wish to tap their feet correctly - here is the basic rhythmic pattern of eighth-notes, shown (above) in its written and (below) in its perceived groupings:

      5/8	7/8	   7/8	      8/8
    (__ ___)(__ ___ __)(__ __ ___)(__ __ __  )
     || |||  || ||| ||  || || |||  || || || |
    (/   * )(/   *)(/   /  /   * )(/  /  /  /)
The patterns goes five full cycles at the beginning, adds three extra chords, then goes around twice more (decorated by the violin) and most of a third time before breaking down into its smaller components. A brief middle section is a moment of real relaxation, and then the math-and mayhem returns - starting with its smaller bits, as if warming up. As at the beginning there are five "correct" cycles before it goes off the rails. But the arithmetical havoc is more complete this time, and the music heats up into a white-hot frenzy before slamming into a brutal version of the freddo section from the first movement. As if having reminded itself from whence it came, the piece then cools and dissolves into a true return of that "wind in a graveyard". Repeated F's in the piano - like the slow tolling of the tenor bell - introduce a brief closing theme, a kind of epilogue of rare sweetness, and the piece ends with the piano's four lowest F's (the upper one matched by the violin) plus middle C. Some listeners will hear in this final chord a reinstatement of the reconciliation of F major. The chord contains no A - either flat or natural - though the overtones of the piano strings themselves with give off a sort of ghostly aura of A-naturals that would, in fact, produce that effect.

Program note by Jean R. Dane

Sony Classical (SMK 64 534): Isaac Stern, violin; Alexander Zakin, piano
(ODE 807-2): Ilya Grubert, violin; Matti Raekallio, piano
(DG 423 575 - 2): Shlomo Mintz, violin; Yefim Bronfman, piano

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Modified: August 12, 1997