British pianist Peter Donohoe turns the spotlight on Prokofiev, offering a rare opportunity to hear the composer’s three great War Sonatas in one concert.
We rarely hear the Prokofiev War Sonatas played in one concert, what is it that makes them special – for the performer and for the listener?
The wonderful cycle of Prokofiev’s nine piano sonatas forms the 20th Century’s largest and most significant collection of major piano solo works based on the traditional form of ‘Sonata’. (There is also a fragment of a tenth sonata lasting about 2.5 minutes based on material from his earlier Sonatina No 2; both sonatinas are also very interesting works.) By way of contrast the other most significant composers of the century tended to move away from the idea of a symphonic-style in multiple movements, although there were some very great exceptions (eg Shostakovich and Rachmaninov both limited themselves to only two sonatas, Bartók and Stravinsky wrote only one each, whilst Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg and many others left none at all). To this writer, every one of the Prokofiev sonatas is a masterpiece, and the great trilogy of Nos 6, 7 and 8 is the crowning glory of this great composer’s output of piano music. They form the largest scale of them all, in particular No 8, and all three could be said to be amongst the pinnacles of 20th Century music. I feel them very strongly to be three parts of a whole, very contrasted yet unified, and extremely satisfying to play and hear.
What is the history of the War Sonatas?
After Prokofiev’s unexpected return to the Soviet Union in 1936 after his time in exile in Switzerland, he was welcomed back, and in return he wrote many works celebrating the Motherland. This was partly expected by the Stalin government, but it was also very deeply felt by Prokofiev in the light of World War Two, in which so many of his compatriots were killed. The three sonatas are often called ‘War Trilogy’ – ie anti-war and depicting the attack by Nazi Germany on Russia – and equally often interpreted as subversive horrific depictions of the worst excesses of Soviet rule. However, they may also be viewed as, at least partly, celebrating the growth of the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, via huge strides in industrial and agricultural development, from the appalling situation that caused the revolution in the first place into a modern state. In other words one can interpret the more driving and dissonant passage as depicting either the inexorable approach of tanks and soldiers, the inexorable march of oppression, or the inexorable progress of the building of factories and tractors. This latter view of the works is one that this writer favours, as it gives scope for a enormous variety of moods and colours, than the other two ‘interpretations’. Let us also remember that they were all written in 1939 – two years before Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union – were premiered during the war itself, and admired openly by Stalin. No 6 was premiered by Prokofiev himself, No 7 (the work that ultimately became the composer’s most frequently programmed piano piece) by Sviatoslav Richter, and No 8 by Emil Gilels.
However, in the more global sense of ‘abstract’ music, it is best to view them as pure music with no programmatic implications. That the three sonatas were written simultaneously during the period preceding the War, it does rather indicate that the War Trilogy label is too simplistic. That Prokofiev had returned to the Soviet Union voluntarily also undermines the notion that he was openly expressing horror at his homeland.
You’ve recorded all of the Prokofiev sonatas – how has your view on the works changed over the years ?
I think the most important way in which they have ‘settled’ is that I have been able to gradually move away from the idea of the music being programmatic. As implied above, to view them as great symphonic unified structures of abstract music raises the spiritual level and makes them greater works, rather than to superimpose a, sometimes even politically-motivated, program. This greatly affects the way one plays the music, and creates the opportunity to value each passage as it is written, rather than to make a point of something that one tries to see in the music that is not born of a musical impulse. After all, in the case of great music from a different era, we know that Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was inspired by Napoleon and his leadership of the new French Republic – although we also know that the composer tore up the dedication when he later saw Napoleon as a power-hungry dictator. But these facts do not and should not affect the way one responds to this magnificent score; the social background of individual works is always of historical interest, but it does not determine one’s way of performing it – the score alone is enough to do that.
Which pianists do you listen to? Are there any that you think are particularly special?
The one who most inspired me as a young student of music was Sviatoslav Richter, but I became aware later of countless others. Richter’s overall cultural awareness and his being far more than just a pianist – an overall musician of huge intelligence and experience of music far beyond the piano repertoire was what I instinctively felt when I became aware of him, and those who impressed me later were from a similar mould.
You’ve been awarded a CBE for services to music, and your name has world-wide prominence. Tell us about some of your career highlights…
I like to think of all of it as a highlight ie that I never view anything as less important than the rest, and I refuse to make a hierarchy of importance out of what I have done. The CBE Honour is such a thrilling endorsement by the Royal Family and the Cabinet – not only of myself, but of classical music in general at a time when the arts are marginalised to a frightening degree by the mainstream media, and I am very grateful for it.