The 1932 Sonata for Two Violins was, like the earlier Overture on Hebrew Themes, composed for a specific ensemble: the Parisian new-music group Le Triton. The piece represents the intersection of artistic and political developments at a turning point in Prokofiev's life: in spite of increasing international success, he was cultivating closer ties to the Soviet Union; in spite of his devotion to new music, his own music was in transition from acerbic modernism to a simpler, more accessible style. The work was actually premiered in Moscow by Dmitri Tsiganov and Vasili Shirinsky, members of the Beethoven Quartet; the Paris performance that followed shortly featured violinists Robert Soëtens (who later commissioned Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto) and Samuel Dushkin (who had already begun his association with Stravinsky).
Modeled on the baroque sonata da chiesa, the piece compresses a wide-ranging musical experience into four compact movements. The first, Andante cantabile, begins with a long-breathed solo soon overlaid by the second part; together, they evoke the melismatic lines and close harmonies of eastern European folk singing - more abstracted, however, than in the Overture on Hebrew Themes. The subsequent Allegro moves from song to dance; sharp chords move into swirling patterns, at times overlapping like partners in a dance. Occasional pizzicato suggests a physical gesture (finger snapping, perhaps?); also physical is the effect of a brief slowdown before gathering momentum for a final push. The graceful lines and carefully placed major chords give the Commodo (quasi Allegretto) a sweet serenity; in contrast, the final Allegro con brio finds Prokofiev at his neoclassical best: clear, sparkling, and fugal. If the first movement evokes folk heterophony, this brings us to an orchestral conception - covering vast musical and emotional territory without abandoning a singular perspective.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.