Friday, January 16, 2015

Van Cliburn – Sonatas by Barber and Prokofiev

   In the history of music sonata was a form of many different aspects. It went by centuries of evolution before it reached the position of the crowning achievement in a field of solo music expression. In earlier history its name was familiar but associated to some less complicated constructions. It was in the classical period when sonata has been established as most complex and balanced form of European music. Powers of solo sonata were extraordinarily significant and showing explicitly the versality and deep psychological means of sonata form in works composed for solo piano and other instruments. In solo music sonata was the same as symphony in orchestral repertoire. No wonder this classical form was constantly composed and performed also in next centuries. After great historic achievements of romantic sonatas, 20th century was also great time for many sonata masterpieces.
   Most of sonatas written in 20th century were classified as belonging to the current of neoclassicism. Even single sonatas can be pivotal to creative output of many 20th century composers like Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, Berg, Rzewski, Shostachovich, Ginastera, Dutilleux and many others. It’s like sonnet in poetry, no matter, romantics or modernists, almost all have to confront with this classical form. Others like Scriabin, Hindemith, Schnittke or Boulez have leaved more sonatas marking their artistic successes. One of greatest masters of classical forms and one of greatest composers of 20th century was Sergei Prokofiev. The number of nine piano sonatas in his catalogue speaks for itself. Conclusive piece for creating his individual composing style was Piano Sonata No. 6 op. 82. This was also the first moment since Prokofiev returned to Soviet Union, when his composition was under fierce attack of critics for its formalism.

Van Cliburn Two – Two 20th-Century Masterpieces (1971)

   The absolute music idea was as much implemented in sonata form as far from realistic music esthetics of Soviet Union. In 1940 even the title was provoking. Prokofiev didn’t compose sonatas since his 5th Piano Sonata C Major op. 38 (1923), but after 1936 when he settled in Moscow, he has gradually returned to the idea of contemporary composition using classical forms. In autumn 1939 he started working on three compositions called War Sonatas. 6th Piano Sonata A Major op. 82 was premiered April 8th 1940 by composer himself. Next two were premiered by Sviatoslav Richer (1942) and Emil Gilels (1944). With four-movements construction, where 1st movement is basing on double tonality A major and A minor, middle movements have elements of march and waltz rhythmic patterns and closing rondo uses material of 1st movement, this sonata was enough absolute to be immediately attacked for its formalistic attitude. Ironically for his 7th Piano Sonata B-flat Major “Stalingrad” op. 83 Prokofiev has received Stalin Prize.
   Neoclassicism in music was trend wide spread and recognized as one of dominating tendencies in the first half of the century. In fact it was predeceased by many works of postromantic composers and in many occasions it was alive also in postwar music. Tendency was so strong even most radical avant-garde composers composed some sonatas for dramatic and structural qualities. Some were trying to use some features of classical style as a reaction to romanticism and its emotional instability. In group of American composers of 20th century sonatas the most widely recognized one was Samuel Barber (1910-1981). He started with Violin Sonata (1928) presumably destroyed by composer, four years later he published Cello Sonata (1932) and in 1949 he composed Piano Sonata E-flat Minor, Op. 26. In four movements with fugue in closing Allegro con spirito, Barber’s Sonata combines historic forms and virtuosity with chromatic material and serial technique. Premiered by Vladimir Horovitz this extremely difficult work in a short time became one of most famous contemporary works.
   When in 1971 Van Cliburn published album with his interpretations of masterpieces of famous 20th century neoclassical composers, he chose and performed sonatas by Sergei Prokofiev and by Samuel Barber. He was already familiar with these works, performing them on different occasions, during life concerts and in studio recordings. Album was published by RCA as Two 20th-Century Masterpieces and it comprises precise, balanced in sound and expression performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata along with one of most focused and energetic interpretations of Barber’s Piano Sonata. Natural touch of virtuosity, deep intellectual understanding of neoclassic and neoromantic powers of sonata form, and last but not least sense of humor and emotional involvement make these performances just electrifying. Four stars for artistic and intellectual qualities of this great album.

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