The Breakdown of the Classic Prokofiev Sonata

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Nikolai Kapustin was born in 1937 and established himself as a virtuosic jazz pianist, composer and arranger in Russia. As a living composer in the 21st century, he has a total of 125 compositions to date including twenty piano sonatas, six piano concertos, a set of chamber works, coupled with compositions for orchestra and big bands.

With the influence by modern idioms of jazz, Kapustin’s composition style portrays a blend of Western classical and post-classical art music, captivating his audience as such. Even though Kapustin uses the language of jazz improvisation, he does not improvise in his writings. His works present jazz in a contrapuntally dense framework of thematic organisation, development and restatement. Additionally, Kapustin’s piano compositions are written in a highly pianistic fashion with fingers flowing beautifully and naturally.

Kapustin composed his twelfth Piano Sonata, Op. 102 in 2001. This two-movement work is a well-composed and formatted improvisation, written in his mature style influenced by jazz and rock. Kapustin's twelfth Piano Sonata presents much more rhythmic and harmonic complexity as compared to his earlier compositions. The first movement, Allegretto, opens with a pure jazz fantasy, sounding improvised throughout. This creates a dreamy landscape filled with rubatos and a beautiful melodic line. Moreover, the introduction of swing rhythm provides this movement with a sense of relaxation. As with most classical Sonatas, there are various motifs that recurs throughout, binding the movements together. The second movement, Allegro assai, introduces a boogie-woogie bass line; a contrast in landscape from the beginning of the piece. This movement is essentially a fiery jazz-rock rollercoaster with multiple twists and a spikey coda that ends on the extremities of the keyboard.

Arcadi Volodos is a Russian pianist born in 1972. Known for his technical mastery of the instrument’s virtuosic repertoire, Volodos is famed for his recordings of transcriptions by Vladimir Horowitz. On top of that, he is also notable for his technically demanding arrangement of classical pieces such as Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca. Ernesto Lecuona y Casado was a Cuban pianist of exceptional skill and a composer with over six hundred pieces to his name. Lecuona is generally regarded as the leading figure in Cuba’s musical scene during the first half of the 20th Century. In 1928, Lecuona wrote Malagueña, the sixth and most well-known movement of the Suite Andalucía. Malagueña is a smooth flowing dance in rapid triple meter from the region of Malaga in southern Spain. The popular motif of the Malagueña (C# E# G# C# E# G# F# A G# F# E D) can be heard throughout the piece.

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Volodos transcribed a more virtuosic version of Malagueña. Currently, Volodos has written four versions and all of the versions do not contain any dynamic markings. However, the piece incorporates multiple tempo changes as he cleverly utilises this set of tempo (Allegretto, Presto, Allegro Assai) to create a sense of excitement and a Spanish flair. Malagueña opens with Castanet-like motifs and encompass lots of dance-like figures and Spanish rhythms as well; triple meter along with the repeated rhythm of crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet. Malagueña boasts a Flamenco-themed melody that alternates between the right and left hand various times throughout the movement, with the piece ending in jumps and leaping octaves.

Sergei Prokofiev was a Russian Soviet composer, pianist and conductor. Born in 1891, he is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th Century. Prokofiev has a substantial amount of great masterpieces that are widely enjoyed, including the famous Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf. Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op.82, was the first of the three ‘War Sonatas’ (No. 6, 7 and 8) composed between 1939 and 1944 while the Soviet Union was at wat with the German Nazis. The sixth sonata was written in 1940, right before the invasion of the Nazis, while the seventh and eighth sonatas were written during the war itself. Many of Prokofiev’s works possess a percussive attack, rhythmic drive and dissonance-encrusted harmonies, with the Sonata No. 6 not being an exception. Although this sonata comprises of modern musical language, all four movements are laid out in a traditional structure; first movement in sonata form, second movement in a Scherzo, a slow, melodious third movement and a Rondo finale.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, opens with an angular and persistent main motif where the melody is played in descending parallel major and minor thirds (E-D-C#?). It is a sharply defined rhythmic motif; one longer value followed by three fast descending ones. This bitonal and asymmetrical main theme repeats countless amount of times, engraving itself into the back of the listener's mind coupled with nervous energy. There are two keys established in this movement, A Major and A minor. After a wave of exciting yet uneasy passage, a contrasting second subject can be heard. This second subject is filled with a pure and flowing melody. Just as this movement seems to have calmed down, a dark and sinister motif of repeated notes surfaces at the bass in the development section. The single voice of repeated notes splits into two, with the lowest voice starting at a louder dynamic before gradually fading away through several repeats of a three-note ascending chromatic motif (A-Ab-G). Finally, the original opening motif returns in the recapitulation at the lower registers of the keyboard. Prokofiev manipulates these two dissimilar ideas to construct an extended movement containing pounding dissonances before wilting away with a fragment of the opening theme, binding the entire movement as a whole.

The second movement, Allegretto, is known as a “quick march”. This movement presents a playful and whimsical facet of this sonata, exalted by its fairly quick tempo marking. The continuous four staccato beats in cut time portrays a considerably more systematic and orderly structure as compared to the chaotic and unruly first movement. As the movement goes on, the main motif is established further each time, resounding thicker with additional leaps and layers. This movement develops with an expressive yet mysterious middle section before ending humorously with a colourful harmonic rhythm.

The third movement, Tempo di valzer lentissimo, represents a slow waltz with a 9/8 meter. Calm and tranquility flows through the start with little movement, gradually turning into a spirited and extroverted dance after an angular middle sections written in 3/4. With constant shifting of inner voices, this movement uncovers vulnerability and intimacy in this music.

The fourth and final movement, Vivace, closes the entire sonata with a toccata that feels like a breathless drive. An energetic mumbling theme opens this movement, flickering between different tonalities. There is a perpetual anticipation packed with excitement and wonder throughout as the audience seek a satisfying resolve. This movement possesses themes that exuberate virtuosity and brilliance backed with huge leaps and fast running notes. At the end of this sonata, Prokofiev surprises the listener by integrating both opening themes of the first and last movement. Prokofiev’s ability to combine such themes from different movements allows his audience to draw connections as he aptly binds this sonata to a powerful close.

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