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Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 119 (1949)

February 8, 2015 – David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano

In 1936, after nearly fifteen years spent living in Paris and traveling worldwide, Sergey Prokofiev, admittedly “patriotic and homesick” and longing to “see the real winter again and hear the Russian language in my ears,” moved back to the Soviet Union with his non-Russian wife and two sons. Relocating during one of the most savage political and social periods in Russian history, Prokofiev was set on establishing himself as one of Russia’s greatest composers. Rachmaninov had his hold on America, Stravinsky claimed Europe, and Shostakovich had just been censored by Stalin. Prokofiev kept his passport to tour without having to petition, but upon routine inspection it was confiscated without return, grounding Prokofiev in Moscow for the remainder of his life. The late 1930s saw very few public debuts of Prokofiev’s works, save the Cello Concerto op. 58 (1938) and Romeo and Juliet (1936), both met with negative criticism.

In the years following World War II, seeking to recover the Soviet “socialist realism” ideal of art, Andrey Zhdanov, the leading Soviet cultural policy maker, passed a series of resolutions affecting literature, art, film, and finally, in 1948, music. This decree stunted artistic growth in the Soviet Union until Stalin’s death, lasting out the remaining years of Prokofiev’s life. The elderly composer grew ill and deeply insecure. Much of his work had been banned from public performance, and though still composing, he hardly was living the pampered lifestyle he had anticipated returning to Russia.

Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, remarkably, was permitted by the Committee of Artistic Affairs to receive a public premiere. It was debuted in 1950 by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatsoslav Richter, with the first movement bearing the quote, “Mankind–that has a proud sound.”

Despite the sheer horror that besieged Prokofiev at the time of the work’s composition, the work remains remarkably expressive. The first movement, marked Andante grave, opens with a resounding call by the cello, followed by a short call-and-response folk melody between the cello and piano. A throbbing interlude brings the main theme, a cheery and flippant duet. The movement slows as the cello rings out a beautiful harmonic cadence, and the second theme enters much more heavily mechanically than the first.

The second movement, a playful Scherzo and Trio, follows suit. A percussive pizzicato entrance transmutes to a complacent romantic trio section. The final Allegro ma non tanto remains timid, with melodies and chordal structure based heavily on Russian folk music. The movement lacks not energy nor drive, yet each climax, rather than developing in timbre and expressive nature, actually becomes more simplistic; sometimes diminishing down to a single note piano melody. The coda recounts the opening resonant notes of the cello in a grand duet statement, marking a turbulent and virtuosic conclusion.

©2013 Andrew Goldstein

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