By Matt Goodrich
For the April 29, 2018 concert
In the final offering of the 2017-2018 COPI Steinway Piano Series, Vadym Kholodenko presents a fascinating recital showcasing a venerable musical form: the piano sonata. This is fortuitous programming following our last concert, where we heard Garrick Ohlsson perform sonatas by Beethoven, Scriabin, and Schubert. Kholodenko invites us on three more enriching sonata journeys—two from the form’s Classical heyday, the other from the tumultuous mid-20th century. The opportunity to experience six such works over a span of two months is an inspiring gift for us in the COPI audience.
In 1778, at his father’s stern counsel, Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart settled for a time in Paris. He composed his Piano Sonata in A minor that summer. The work, breaking new ground in its elevated scale and dramatic power, invites autobiographical considerations given the composer’s unsatisfying Paris sojourn and especially the death of his mother. One of only two Mozart sonatas in a minor key, the music can be appropriately described as “tragic.” The opening movement begins with a profoundly agitated theme marked by dotted rhythms and repeated chords, followed by a manic swirl of sixteenth notes, all worked into a ferocious development. As in other Mozart slow movements, the second movement reveals expressive qualities of the piano in a then-new way, the elegiac tenderness of the singing line and its soaring gestures contrasting with the mood of the previous movement. Before long, however, the serenity is scoured out by chilly, sorrowful gusts. The concluding presto is absolutely breathtaking, racing through textures from agitated to ghostly, wild to distraught. A more tranquil moment offers a respite before the tumultuous drive to the end. In this extraordinary sonata, Mozart’s approach is both unusually virtuosic and personally expressive—a turning point that foreshadowed the Romantic musical ethos.
The epic range of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas will be marveled at into perpetuity, as these tonal edifices constitute one of the most important contributions to the entire piano repertoire. Even as his early piano sonatas show the Classical elements received from Haydn and Mozart, the sprightly Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 2 No. 2, one of the composer’s first published compositions, already reveals dazzling originality and novel excitement. This underperformed sonata was published in 1796, when the performer-composer’s star was rapidly rising in Vienna. The first movement is robust and bright in temperament. Its opening material is assembled from a series of “thematic nuggets” that frequently reappear throughout the movement in a sort of sonic kaleidoscope. In a revolutionary salvo, right out of the gate, he takes us on a daring detour in key progressions. The Largo, the first of Beethoven’s trademark gorgeous slow movements that capture a kind of spiritual longing, evokes a string quartet with its detached bass, lyrical chords, and hymnlike melody that seems to spin the very fabric of time and space. The music is deeply expressive and eloquently serene. The brief, lighthearted Scherzo is full of pouncing cheer, bookending a contrasting smooth, minor-key trio. The sonata closes with a lyrical and spacious rondo (a form in which the main tune returns several times), alternating in flavor between graceful and impetuous.
After a relative decline over the 19th century, the piano sonata came roaring back in the hands of 20th-century Russian composers. The nine sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev display the piano’s full powers unleashed, exploiting its percussive nature even while projecting a startlingly lyrical passion. A celebrated concert pianist and one of the most prolific composers of 20th-century piano music, Prokofiev premiered his Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, the first of the three weighty “War Sonatas,” in April 1940 over a live radio broadcast. The work can be described only as massive—full of defiant, fierce pianism within a huge, four-movement structure, making it a feat to perform. The first movement is aggressive and grinding, even including chords punched with the fist. The following movement is enjoyable to hear—winsome and jaunty, with a tuneful middle section. The third movement is a slow, lushly lyrical waltz that could have sprung right out of the composer’s Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet ballets. The finale features motoric pyrotechnics and sparkling melodies marked by a return of the opening movement’s main theme, gathering momentum to a thunderous finish. The qualities of Prokofiev’s sonata were immediately recognized. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter wrote in his memoir about turning pages for the composer in a soirée preceding the official premiere: “Even before Prokofiev had finished playing, I had decided—I will play that!” while fellow Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote to Prokofiev, “The Sixth Sonata is magnificent. From beginning to end.”