It gets bruited about in select musical circles that Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev's true genius lies in his piano pieces; and that his nine sonatas are the finest examples of such; and that the three "War" sonatas—Nos. 6, 7 and 8—tower over the other six; and that, finally, the Sonata No. 6, Op. 82, ranks (raising my hand) at the top of the three. So, if you can follow this circuitous train of thought, Op. 82 must be...well, figure it out.
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival audiences could do the figuring-out for themselves at noon, Aug. 19, at the Lensic when Yefim Bronfman just about tore our heads off with his reading of Prokofiev's fresh and fierce sonata. "Passionate" doesn't begin to describe his take on Op. 82, premiered in 1940. War had not yet come to the Soviet Union, but anger, fear and impending menace fill the score, only slightly mitigated by surprising, perhaps ironic lyrical passages.
Bronfman played the first movement's centrally placed lyricism with careful restraint, a counterbalance to his terrifying ferocity elsewhere. Crisp clarity marked the Allegretto, its impish rhythmic ostinato supporting a fluid theme that prefigures Prokofiev's ballet score for Cinderella.
The waltz movement, marked lentissimo, became a ghostly dance, a fugitive vision that darkened into the finale's desperate toccata. Here, Bronfman created an end-of-the-world-wind dance of death, bringing back the sonata's opening motifs to devastating effect.
Opening the program, Marc Neikrug's 2008 Passions, Reflected became a mild reminder of Bronfman's premiere of the work last January and, more directly, a reflection upon the author's passionate involvement with composers and compositional styles from his own pianistic past. Neikrug modeled this 20-minute, 12-movement work upon Schumann's Romantic cycles like Papillons or Kreisleriana.
Each of the dozen sections retains its own character, commencing with the dark, gnomic opening, moving from Scriabin-like chromaticism to a sad waltz to a sort-of-Chopin mazurka and then a violent, crazy take on Czerny's études, concluding with another percussive, martial Totentanz reminiscent of the conclusion of Prokofiev's Op. 82. Bronfman provided a bang-on, sympathetic performance.
Pardon, please, a domestic note: The other evening while we were finishing supper on the portal, distant musical strains came drifting our way. From the Plaza Bandstand? Nope. Nearer, and it sounded like strings. We followed our ears, out the gate, into the lane. String playing indeed—that paused and started and paused again. No recording but a living, breathing garage-band string quartet in a neighbor's house engaged in of all things, hausmusik. Beethoven to be precise.
And a serendipitous prelude to two remarkable SFCMF concerts last week almost entirely devoted to late, late Beethoven. Pianist Joseph Kalichstein presided over the first half of the Aug. 20 program, commencing with a stormy, idiosyncratic account of the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126 and concluding with the E-major Sonata, Op. 109.
This remains one of those works, the final movement in particular, that makes you want to "stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone," as poet WH Auden put it in a vastly different context. It just ignores time, space and mutability. Artur Schnabel included Op. 109 among his short list of music that's simply better than can ever be played. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, has said that the final movement's marking, "Songful, with innermost feeling," dictates a tempo conveying "the slow pulse of nature." Kalichstein's reading, deliberate and deeply felt, conveyed that living pulse. He made it sing, naturally and truly.
After the break, the Dover Quartet—making a welcome SFCMF debut this season—took the stage, first with the assistance of violist Cynthia Phelps, to deliver the tiny (only two-plus minutes), hard-charging D-major Fugue, Op. 137, and then in a performance of Beethoven's final String Quartet, Op. 135. They're a youthful foursome, 2010 graduates of the Curtis Institute facing a rosy future if their account of this work is any indication of performance prowess.
Calm refinement prevails throughout Beethoven's quartet; the same may be said of the Dover's assured reading. Their opening Allegretto: high spirits and quick delicacy. The slow, sonorous movement, marked cantante e tranquillo: simply noble. In the iridescent finale their joy in making music together made the Lensic come alive.
The following night opened with Beethoven's last cello sonata, the Op. 102, No. 2, Kalichstein and cellist Ronald Thomas providing a conscientious if stolid performance. Closing the program, that crowd-pleasing perennial, the "Archduke" Trio, Op. 97, came round yet again to everyone's stand-up satisfaction with violinist Martin Beaver, cellist Eric Kim and Bronfman leading the way.
Fresh-faced youth, Benjamin Beilman, met hoary-headed experience, Kalichstein, in easily the grandest collaboration of the evening, the Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96. From that bizarre opening trill to the wildly scampish finale, these two had a partnership that clicked on every level. Beilman didn't just play the piece. He exhaled it. Fine-spun phrasing, thoughtful inflection, you name it: To mildly misquote Mr. Eliot, he was the music while the music lasted.
So save space next summer when Beilman's back with more Beethoven, a Tchaikovsky trio, the Franck Piano Quintet and something of a curiosity: Bach's Goldberg Variations in a 1984 transcription for string trio by Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Just say you saw it here first.