Some Slavic Piano Sonatas

Yesterday's listening included three piano sonatas by Slavic composers: Prokofyev's 8th (1944), Paderewski's only (1903), and Medtner's 8th (1914).

Most of Prokofyev's music is not legible to me. Where it is not, it is not fitting, in conscience, for me to speak of it at all. Then there are works such as the fifth symphony, which is legible but which I do not like; I could explain what I do not like about it, but, axiomatically, no one cares, or should. Of his nine piano sonatas, the only one that I both understand and like is the seventh, and it is puzzling to find it in such close proximity to the eighth, which I find perfectly opaque.

Paderewski's music is too little known. If he never wrote anything else as fine as his piano concerto, still his other large works (a symphony, a piano sonata, a violin sonata, and two big sets of variations) are serious, well- crafted, and -- after a few hearings -- show an individual voice. What more would we be entitled to ask? The piano sonata is modelled upon the Schumann sonatas; it begins with a motive built from two pairs of ascending minor seconds, which is a Paderewski fingerprint: the main theme of the first movement of his symphony does a similar thing. The middle section of the finale is a fugue whose subject is again based on the two pairs of seconds, but paralleled in sixths and thirds; this intrinsically unpromising subject is worked out fully and correctly, and it is not a mere stunt, but the overall impression left by the sonata is of almost self-conscious thoroughness and correctness.

The finest of these three works is the Medtner. Formally it is richer and more original, and its material is more memorable. The ending of the first movement doesn't quite work: it cannot be F-sharp major, because that would make the first movement sound self-sufficient by itself, but F-sharp minor sounds like a reverse Picardy third and, at that, inadequately prepared. But any other key would require the whole structure of the work to be rethought. The problem is the rhetoric: this ending is too emphatic.

Medtner is an interesting case study in reception and reputation. Prokofyev was never in any danger of neglect; only a small fraction of the people who remember Paderewski as a performer are even aware that he composed. Would we know Medtner today if (of anyone) the Maharaja of Mysore had not taken an interest in his work and subsidized a set of professional recordings? Here is Medtner himself playing the eighth sonata in one of those sessions: