Cello Sonata

Sergey Prokofiev

Cello Sonata in C major

Op. 119

About this work

It was a remarkable pair of Soviet musicians that gave the 1950 premiere of Sergey Prokofiev's Sonata for cello and piano in C major, Op. 119: pianist Sviastoslav Richter and cellist Msitislav Rostropovich. By 1949, when he composed the sonata, Prokofiev was in the last half-decade of his life; together, the Sonata, the Seventh Symphony (1951-1952), and the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra (1952) make a remarkable final threesome of instrumental pieces.

Prokofiev was among those composers officially condemned for "formalism" in 1948, and it is both fascinating and stirring to witness how successfully Prokofiev managed, in these last works, to create a music that seems perhaps utterly conservative but which still pushes new expressive buttons in quiet ways that the Pravda officials would surely never have been astute enough to hear. The composer of the Sonata for cello and piano might seem a tame composer compared to, say, the composer of 1914's Scythian Suite; but he is really just a composer who has learned subtler, more patient, and, ultimately, clearer ways to fully speak his mind.

The sonata is in three movements: Andante grave, Moderato, and Allegro ma non troppo. True Classical sonata-allegro form meets stunning, voluptuous melody in the opening movement. A low, unpretentious cello solo raises the curtain; out of the piano's occasional comments grows a little tune whose steady chordal accompaniment is soon taken over by the cello's striking pizzicato chords. Prokofiev once said that he was no good at writing melodies. Looking at the music of his youth we might be forced to agree; but the G major second theme of the Andante grave proves beyond any doubt what can be learned through a lifetime of work -- it is rich, full, and exceedingly flexible.

The Moderato is a bouncing, energetic movement that dances its way towards a sublimely smooth central episode. In the finale, Prokofiev makes little effort to hide the fact that he was steeped in the music of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky during his youth. He might as a young man have revolted against that heritage, but he never escaped it, and in the Allegro ma non troppo he matches deeply lyrical "Russian" tunefulness with an easy gracefulness worthy of Haydn, and then adds the kind of impish rhythms and (late in the piece) virtuosic fire that will always say "Prokofiev" to us.