Almost exactly a month ago SOMM Recordings released the third and final installment in Peter Donohoe’s project to record the complete piano sonatas composed by Sergei Prokofiev. This volume was used to present the three “war” sonatas as a single “package.” There is even the suggestion that there is enough coherence across the set to justify listening to the entire set as a single cycle.
It is unclear what Prokofiev would have thought of such an approach. He probably would have approved. He assigned the sonatas consecutive opus numbers, 82, 83, and 84, even though they were composed between 1940 and 1944. Each was given its first performance by a different pianist, Prokofiev himself for Opus 82, Sviatoslav Richter for Opus 83, and Emil Gilels for Opus 84. Furthermore, Donohoe is not the first to take this integrated approach on a recording. His most notable predecessor would probably be Boris Giltburg, whose recording was released in September of 2012.
The reason Prokofiev would have approved of this approach is that he had entertained the notion of composing a trilogy of piano sonatas before the beginning of the Second World War, not to mention the Nazi invasion of Russia. At the time he was probably thinking of past sets of three piano sonatas composed over a relatively short period of time, such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 109 in E major (1820), Opus 110 in A-flat major (1821), and Opus 111 in C minor (1822) and the three sonatas that Franz Schubert composed in September of 1828 (only a few months before his death), D. 958 in C minor, D. 959 in A major, and D. 960 in B-flat major. While it would probably be unfairly cruel to say that the Nazis provided Prokofiev with a “prop” for his own trilogy project, one might suggest that his approach to the war was more “aesthetic” than that of Dmitri Shostakovich, who had first-hand experience of the onset of the siege of Leningrad.
Thus, while there is no questioning the intensity of the rhetoric that Prokofiev brings to his sonata trilogy, the skeptical listener might be forgiven in suspecting that Prokofiev is manipulating his rhetoric with a skillfully calculated facility. Such facility easily pales when placed beside the almost agonizing war-weariness of a composition like Shostakovich’s Opus 65 (eighth) symphony in C minor. As a result, while Donohoe displays a solid command of the technique required to manage the full handfuls of piano sonorities behind Prokofiev’s sonatas, there is a sense that he is as detached from the war context as Prokofiev himself may have been. Thus, as is the case with the music itself, one can appreciate the technical display; but, in the light of what was happening in the world when Prokofiev wrote these sonatas, one might find oneself asking, with apologies to Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”