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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 So√ętens (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.
04/07