Artist Led, Creatively Driven

Prokofiev War Sonatas
Boris Giltburg

Release Date: September 2012


The War Sonatas

Piano Sonata No.6 in A, Op.82
Allegro moderato
Tempo di valzer lentissimo

Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83
Allegro inquieto – Andantino – Allegro inquieto, come prima – Andantino –
Allegro inquieto, come prima
Andante caloroso

Piano Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84
Andante dolce – Poco più animato – Andante 1 – Allegro moderato – Andante – Andante dolce, come prima – L’istesso tempo – Allegro
Andante sognando
Vivace – Allegro ben marcato – Andantino – Vivace come prima



Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’ (Nos. 6-8) comprise ten separate movements which Prokofiev conceived in 1939 at Kislovodsk, at the time he met Mira Mendelson, who would become his second wife. He originally worked on them at the same time, while he was also composing his Fifth Symphony. However, work was interrupted in autumn 1939 for a commission to write a cantata for Stalin’s 60th birthday, after which he concentrated on finishing Sonata No.6. This was just as the Second World War started in September 1939, Britain having declared war on Hitler’s Germany after its invasion of Poland – although Soviet Russia’s entry into the fray did not actually occur until August 1941, with Hitler unilaterally breaking his non-aggression pact with Stalin by invading Russia.

Then, like most of the leading artists in Moscow at the time, Prokofiev was evacuated by rail to Nalchik in the northern Caucasus, three days away from the capital, taking with him sketches for the ballet Cinderella and the opera War and Peace as well as those for his Seventh and Eighth Sonatas.

Meanwhile, Prokofiev himself had given the première of the Sixth Sonata on air, in a Moscow radio broadcast on 8 April 1940. Earlier that year he had given the work a private performance in the apartment of Pavel Lamm, which was attended by pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who later reported: “The remarkable clarity of style and structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had not heard anything like it before. The composer, with barbaric audacity, breaks with the ideals of the Romantics and includes the shattering pulse of the 20th Century in his music.” The Sixth Sonata’s first public performance was given on 26 November 1940, in Moscow by Richter.

However, after the war, Soviet authorities sought music which was easy on the ear. In February 1948 Prokofiev, along with Shostakovich, was bitterly criticised by the Cultural Commissar Andrei Zhdanov, and his Sixth Sonata was effectively denounced when its first recording, made in 1947 by Victor Merzhanov, was withdrawn, with both original and all copies destroyed.

Meanwhile his next sonata – the Seventh – had already received the Stalin Prize (second degree). Prokofiev completed it in autumn 1942, following another evacuation, this time to the bustling southern city of Tbilisi, and it was again Richter who gave the première in the Hall of the Home of the Unions on 18 January 1943, a month after Prokofiev returned to Moscow, and having learned the score in just four days. Richter commented: “The work was extremely successful… Prokofiev was present and was called on stage… and everyone wanted to hear the Sonata a second time. The listeners grasped the spirit of the work which clearly reflected their innermost feelings.” Two months later the work was awarded the Stalin Prize and it was also deemed worthy of promotion abroad. Both Emil Gilels and Vladimir Horowitz championed it, the latter giving the US premières of all three ‘War Sonatas.’

For those who know Prokofiev’s reputation for enfant-terrible musical iconoclasm, and recognise a similar soundworld in both his belligerent Sixth and Seventh Sonatas, the Eighth Sonata may come as something of a shock. Yes, there are still the mechanistic references to the destructive nature of war, but there is also the tenderest lyricism. And yet we should not be too surprised, as Prokofiev always had the facility to turn to the simplest and most affecting melodic lines and harmonies, and here his direct inspiration was Mira, to whom the Sonata is dedicated. Prokofiev signed and dated the score “Ivanova-Soritov, 29 June 1944” with the première taking place six months later in Moscow, on 30 December.

© Nick Breckenfield, 2012

Playing the three War Sonatas by Prokofiev is a performing experience like almost none other – it’s a unique treat both for a pianist’s fingers as well as for the imagination, as the images that Prokofiev evokes go far beyond the written notes. The range of pianistic techniques, of colours, textures, sounds and moods is bewildering, and the richness and scope of the score lead to a deeply rewarding time on stage – one can easily and happily lose oneself in that music.

Sonata No.6 in A, Op.82
Allegro moderato
Tempo di valzer lentissimo

Though none of the Sonatas are explicitly programmatic (with the possible exception of the second movement of the Seventh), the horrors of war are nowhere as apparent as in the first movement of the Sixth Sonata, right from the barbaric march that opens the work. This is not subtle music – the war is in your face, marching towards you with dead eyes and it is not pleasant. Dissonant harmonies abound, the rhythms are harsh and angular, and Prokofiev seems to revel in the most aggressive sounds he can draw from the piano, up to several clusters of notes which are to be played col pugno (with your fist), and which startlingly resemble the sound of bombs dropping from above. The second subject is lyrical in contrast, resembling a distant folk song (I’m reminded of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Pity of War’), though this mood is not to last long, cut short by alarm bells. The development sets down the pattern that Prokofiev will follow in the Seventh and Eighth Sonatas: a cautious, somewhat controlled beginning with just a voice or two, to which others are added, gradually gaining in volume and texture, till all the main subjects are combined to a stark effect. A much shortened recapitulation leads into a highly dissonant coda, full of bell-like sonorities, which subtly transform into another typical Prokofiev sound – the clock – gradually fading away before the main motif reasserts itself one last time.

The second movement, occupying the scherzo slot of the traditional four-movement cycle, is sharp and jumpy, a quick march with a long, somewhat hard to follow melodic line (it shifts quite often to the inner voices), interspersed at irregular intervals with poking accents which help keep off any possible symmetry or squareness. The entire line is repeated several times with variegating accompaniment lines, interrupted by a middle section, dark and fairytale-like and slightly scary, before making one last appearance, and ending the movement innocently wide-eyed on a pure E-major triad.

The third and fourth movements are more traditional in their harmonic language (with the exception of the wild and chaotic coda at the end of the sonata). The third is a slow waltz – indeed, the tempo marking asks for Tempo di valzer lentissimo (‘as slow as possible waltz tempo’) – with rich, almost lush harmonies and a slightly eerie, slow-motion elegance. The fourth, a more complex movement, begins as a typical Prokofiev finale – fast and light-fingered – with an unexpectedly sweet bridge section and a much harsher, insistent second subject. But then, instead of a development, Prokofiev reminisces on the main theme of the first movement – but what a transformation! Slowly seeping harmonies do gradually bring back some of the harshness of the original theme, before leading into the recapitulation. Its opening is in fact more of a development – fiendishly difficult – after which the second subject appears shortly, followed by the bridge section, its sweetness accompanied this time by a rather poisonous line in the left hand. Then things grind to a halt and we begin one last gradual climb in speed and volume, one which leads into a real frenzy of a coda. A new motif of four repeated notes – which is to become the main motif of the Seventh Sonata – suddenly appears here, its fast repetitions in different voices resembling a machine-gun fire exchange, and thus the sonata ends, after one final, triumphant, appearance of the barbaric march which opened the work.

Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83
Allegro inquieto – Andantino – Allegro inquieto, come prima – Andantino –
Allegro inquieto, come prima
Andante caloroso

If the Sixth, especially in its first movement, is about the ‘horrors without’, I imagine the Seventh to be about the ‘horrors within’. Stalin’s purges of the late 30s were extremely recent in memory, and for me, the nervous agitation of the sonata’s opening is someone’s fear of being immediately arrested – a feeling that must have been known to everybody in that time, Prokofiev not the least, as several of his friends and acquaintances were arrested during the purges and later shot – a fear which is confirmed just a few moments on by the violent, repeated bangs on the keyboard – as if by iron-clad boots on one’s door. It is impossible, of course, to construct a full programme for the entire movement – the bleak and gloomy second subject is harder to characterize, with its crawling, broken lines, full of chromatic notes and unexpected shifts of harmony and dynamics; it is especially striking in the recapitulation, a pale shadow of itself after the tumult of the development. Like the first movement of the Sixth, this movement is full of violence and harsh percussive sonorities, to which it adds its own relentless rhythmic, mechanical drive.

The second movement is a stark contrast. A warm E major welcomes us to a cantabile melody which seems to come from a different time and place – and possibly it does; it is supposed to have been taken from a lied by Schumann, namely Wehmut from the Liederkreis, Op.39 (written in E major as well, and possibly the justification for such a distant key inside the sonata), the text of which runs:

I can sometimes sing
As if I were glad,
Yet secretly tears well up
And thus free my heart.

Nightingales sing
When spring breezes blow
Their song of longing
From their dungeon’s depth.

All hearts listen
And everyone delights,
Yet no one feels the pain,
The deep sorrow in the song.

But soon Prokofiev takes over with dark, creeping lines, bringing the middle section of the movement to a tremendous climax, bigger in its impact than everything that the first movement had to offer. After it subsides, a new section, containing just two notes in its melody, is repeated twice, first in a distant monotone, and then with more emotion, the two notes, previously clock-like in their precision, now sounding like sighs. The opening melody is repeated then, though when performing it I can never shake off the feeling that it has been transformed through all that has happened in between.

The finale, a perpetuum mobile in quirky 7/8, is a masterly feat of piano writing – of the percussive kind – and whereas some may see there the triumph of humanity over all obstacles, for me this is rather the march of a well-oiled, incessantly working and clicking machine, which indeed sweeps aside or tramples down all obstacles – humanity included – on the way to its own triumph.

There’s a question about the tempo of the movement: Prokofiev’s instruction, Precipitato (‘precipitately’), only suggests a mood of hastening, but a point could be made in favour of a decidedly fast tempo, based on the structure of the movement. It follows an arch-like path (A + variation on A – B – C – centre – C – B – A + variation on A – coda), and its central point, the only one that does not get repeated, is a clear reminiscence from the first movement – but only if played at a breakneck tempo, a quaver nearly matching the quaver of the beginning of the sonata; it’s quite an eerie effect, though, if one manages to pull it off – like a ghost of the past appearing for a few seconds before our ears.

Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84
Andante dolce – Poco più animato – Andante 1 – Allegro moderato – Andante – Andante dolce come prima – L’istesso tempo – Allegro
Andante sognando
Vivace – Allegro ben marcato – Andantino – Vivace come prima

Whereas Prokofiev links the Sixth with the Seventh through a connecting motif, the difference between the ending of the Seventh and the beginning of the Eighth could not be greater. Long winding lines, a multi-layered texture, a seemingly serene mood, are all worlds apart from the nervous activity of the fast movements of the Seventh. I believe that it is in the Eighth that Prokofiev reached his highest point among the War Sonatas – its massive canvas, superbly structured, has a richness of inspiration both melodic and textural and a particularly evocative vocabulary of sounds – from the crystalline emptiness above the abandoned village or the distant and sad folk song behind the smouldering battlefield to the war once again being upon us with thundering guns and tolling bells. All of these are just a few of the first movement’s materials (my interpretation, of course). There’s a far-sighted objectivity in the music, a sense of distance and of a tale being told, that are in some ways more chilling than the more direct approach of the Sixth and the Seventh Sonatas.

The second movement is a set of variations on a dance-like tune (a slow minuet or an English Waltz), the sweetness of the melody often peppered with dissonant notes and harmonies. It’s a gentle movement, far away from the horrors of the war, with just a few sections casting a shadow over the tranquil mood. The last movement is a bold and triumphant march, fast and sure-footed, with its central section being perhaps the most interesting and unexpected – the march-like tune and rhythm change into a quick triple time, and Prokofiev slowly and methodically begins to develop a short three-note motif, first bringing it from its spiky origins in the lower reaches of the keyboard to a melodic position, then, after several variations, changing it into a grotesque, horrible waltz, then into a relentless ostinato in the left hand, accompanied by shrieks and whistles in the right hand – and then comes the most magical moment of all: over the now subdued left hand which continues its ostinato, the right hand recalls, ghost-like, the second subject of the first movement – a particularly uncanny combination, and a brilliantly imaginative soundscape. A transition, poisonously sweet, then brings us back to the march, and after a repeat of the first section Prokofiev finished this, perhaps his greatest sonata, with a mad whirl of bells and fanfares. It ends with a sense of triumph, for sure, but I think that the question of who triumphed over what is once again left open to the imagination of the listeners.

© Boris Giltburg, 2012


Born in 1984 in Moscow, Boris Giltburg began his piano studies with his mother at the age of five. He has lived in Tel Aviv since early childhood, where he studied with Arie Vardi, making his Israel Philharmonic debut in 2005. He has won prizes in many international competitions, notably Santander and Rubinstein.

Since his breakthrough appearance with the Philharmonia in 2007 Giltburg has been an annual visitor to the Royal Festival Hall in London, and made his BBC Proms debut in 2010 with the BBC Scottish Symphony. He has also appeared with the London Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Orchestre National Capitole de Toulouse, Swedish Radio Symphony, Danish Radio Symphony and Royal Flemish Philharmonic, to name a few. He made his North American orchestra debut in 2007 with the Indianapolis Symphony, and toured China for the first time in the same season. He first appeared in Tokyo in 2005.

Giltburg has played recitals at the Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Munich Herkulessaal, and at the festivals in Luzern, Schwetzingen, Klavierfest am Ruhr, and Piano aux Jacobins among many others.

‘I have to say that these performances of Prokofiev’s three ‘War’ sonatas eclipse all others on record.”  (Bryce Morrison, Gramophone Magazine, February 2012 Editor’s Choice)

These are powerful, intuitive performances, executed with stylistic understanding and arresting presence.  (Geoffrey Norris, Daily Telegraph) 

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