Of the Seventh Sonata, Op. 83, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Sviatoslav Richter, entrusted with the first performance of the Sonata in Moscow in January 1943, later recalled: “The audience clearly grasped the spirit of the work, which reflected their innermost feelings and concerns.
“With this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by before thereby ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force.”
Such a certainty of interpretation seems unquestionable – the triptych of the 6th, 7th, and 8th sonatas have come to be known as the “War Sonatas,” after all. But we know now that most of the themes of the sonata had in fact been sketched out as early as 1939, when Soviet Union and Germany still maintained a mutual, albeit nervous, stance of non-aggression. It was a time when surviving the purges of Stalin was, in fact, the immediate terror. Ironically, with the outbreak of open war, and the subsequent popularity of the piece, it would be awarded the Stalin Prize.
That popularity has continued. This is still the most often performed of the composer’s sonatas – while remaining essentially enigmatic. The barbaric outbursts of the opening Allegro inquieto locate the piece well into the 20th century, but the romantic songfulness of middle movement seems to reach back to a genotype Rachmaninoff also shared.
“In his recent biography of the composer, Daniel Jaffé notes that the beautiful and longing melody of the second movement Andante caloroso (caloroso = warm), is actually a quotation from Schumann’s song Wehmuth (Sadness) from Liederkreis, Op.39. The text is “I can sometimes sing as if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart.” But the paradoxically limpingly graceful accompaniment of the melody permits no purely sentimental expression without irony.
The Percipitato third movement (such descriptive movement headings!) is a virtuoso immolation. An assertion of a “life-force” indeed, but not necessarily an entirely victorious one. Perhaps it is the slipperiness of these three movements, their resistance to any easy interpretation, which makes the sonata perpetually rewarding.