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Chiuing His Cabbage Twice

New York
Metropolitan Museum
10/18/2002 -  
Serge Prokofieff: Sonata # 6
Frederic Chiu (piano)

Serge Prokofieff contemplated for a time publishing one giant, ten movement piano work that would have rivaled any of the compositions of Kaikhosru Sorabji for sheer pianistic endurance. On second thought, this keyboard wizard with the hands of Hercules decided that his conception would be simply too much for mere mortals to perform and eventually split the piece into the three sonatas now numbered as 6, 7 and 8. This season, the Metropolitan Museum is attempting to redefine this music even farther, presenting a three evening taffy pull wherein each sonata is explored singly. As this amounts to only twenty minutes of music per night, these merry marketeers have filled the remaining time with talks by the featured performer Frederic Chiu.

Now no one expects Mr. Chiu to be a polished and brilliant speaker, but his rambling remarks led to many distracting and embarrassingly audible conversations amongst the crowd. Even if one agrees (which I do not) with his thesis that an analysis of the Sixth Sonata would not be illustrative or revelatory, it was hard to follow the point of this pastiche of events in the composer’s life. If any twentieth century composer had good stories to relate about him, it was Prokofieff, and yet Mr. Chiu eschewed all of these in favor of a dry, Hegelian historicity. The paying customers went away no better informed than when they came.

All of which would be largely irrelevant if the reading of the Sonata had been first rate, but instead its realization was eerily similar to those opening remarks. Such an exciting work was now retold in basically the same arid manner as the previous life story. The 6th is a study in rhythmic fluidity and contrast (an analysis of which would have been much more interesting as an oral prelude), however Mr. Chiu glossed over much of this staccato versus legato bas-relief in favor of a gouache of phrasing similarities. The opening three-note figure, which, ironically, he had characterized correctly in his lecture as “percussive”, was never allowed to break free and enjoy its own musical life but was rather enslaved in the general uniformity as if it were just another section of arpeggio. Its triumphant (or ghostly) return at sonata’s end was thus devoid of poetical sense. Chiu certainly possesses the technical skills required for this bete noir of a piece (no small accomplishment, to be sure), but perhaps while preparing his commentary for the even more daunting 7th, he would be well served to consider the meaning of these metrical oppositions. As an encore, he offered up a lovely set of snippets from the same composer’s Romeo and Juliet, describing it as an “antidote” for the previous, but, just as in the case of those star-crossed lovers, the cure for the poison was too little and too late.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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