The idea of coupling works by Schubert, Prokofiev and Chopin came to my mind after I learnt about Prokofiev’s career as a pianist, which was a very important part of his life. When he left Russia in 1918 on his way to the United States, his first long stopover was Japan, where he gave several concerts containing his own works combined with Chopin pieces. After he arrived in the US, the promoters there asked him to add works by composers of the Classical period to his recital programmes, and this is what prompted him to make a transcription of Schubert waltzes. So I was fascinated by the idea of putting pieces by these three different composers together. I see Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata as the centre of this constellation, revealing the connections between the three works.
For me the “Three Piano Pieces” are among the deepest and most personal works for piano. The main section of no.1 in E flat minor, with its pulsating triplets in the left hand and its short exclamations in the right, creates a restless, dramatic atmosphere. Originally, Schubert composed two trios – in B major and A flat major – to provide a contrast to the main section, but then he crossed out the second one. I like to keep to the composer’s original idea, so I perform the piece with both trios (Henle edition). No. 2 in E flat major is a great lyrical piece with two trios in C minor and A flat minor. The A flat minor section with its beautiful and simple vocal line and its supporting accompaniment is in my opinion one of the most personal and moving statements in all classical music. No. 3 in C major is full of syncopation, with a very joyful character. The single middle section in D flat major is based on a chorale-like theme, which is then varied. In the coda (also built around syncopation) Schubert takes us to the pinnacle of brightness and joy.
The Seventh Sonata in B flat major, Op. 83, was composed between 1939 and 1942, the same period when Prokofiev was working on the Sixth Sonata in A major, Op. 82, and the Eighth in B flat major, Op. 84. The opening theme of the first movement (Allegro inquieto) establishes the keynote of the whole piece – the note B flat, to which Prokofiev always returns in the first bars as an ‘idée fixe’, and which he destroys in a very marked manner just a few bars later. Through the whole movement the composer maintains this sense of unease (also suggested in the expression mark) and of the fragility of the things we believe to be stable and permanent. The second subject is a chilling theme wandering through different keys. The extremely powerful development section, based on the opening motifs, is almost devoid of clear tonal centres. Only in the last chord of the coda, in B flat major, is the tonic finally affirmed. The second movement, Andante caloroso, is a fantastic example of Prokofiev’s lyrical side – note the beautiful colour of the melody, with a slight tinge of unreality, which rises to a bell-like climax. The transition to the ‘reprise’, where the bell sounds from very far away, reminds me of the field after a battle, where nothing living is left. This vision disappears only after the E major main theme returns, but the movement’s concluding chords still evoke the sense of death. The final movement, Precipitato, is a toccata in 7/8 with repeated figuration in the bass (including the note B flat). The movement develops throughout, with the texture and sonority constantly intensifying right up to the final resolution to B flat major in the closing bars, which at the same time marks the complete devastation of the substance.
When I visited the monastery of Valldemossa on the island of Majorca in 2011, I was amazed by its atmosphere. Chopin composed the greater part of the Twenty-four Preludes during his stay there in 1838/39, and the place still retains his spirit. It is well known that Chopin admired Bach and took the score of The Well- tempered Clavier to Valldemossa with him. He was working on a large-scale cycle of pieces in all twenty-four keys, but in contrast to Bach, he uses the circle of fifths, with each major key followed by its relative minor. In each prelude, Chopin makes a strong statement in very concise form, and every single note is intended to complete this statement. For me the Preludes are a unique universe, where each piece complements the others while at the same time possessing its own personality and character. Chopin left pianists and listeners free to choose their specific interpretation of each prelude, and I think that no other piece can be performed in so many different ways as the Preludes.
My perception of the Preludes is founded on study of the score (I use the Polish National Edition edited by Jan Ekier, which is ‘based on the entire body of available sources’ and is intended ‘to present Chopin’s output in its authentic form’, to quote the Edition’s website) and my personal feeling for this unique music.