Thoughts on Prokofiev Flute Sonata

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Several times I’ve been asked by students “so how do I play Russian music?”
This is always within the context of the Prokofiev Sonata. The history of this piece is quite well known now, especially since Patricia Harper’s article (DFG 4/2008) has been published in the US and Germany (and elsewhere, for all I know). I had learned this history while teaching a private masterclass to students from Moscow. However, Ms. Harper brought some interesting facts to light which I did not know, and which vindicate a suspicion I’ve always had about Prokofiev’s music, and particularly about the flute sonata.

I’ve always been suspicious about a heavy, brutal, rough, even crass interpretation of this piece. Some flutists, even famous ones perform it this way: overblowing the low register, ignoring the refinements of articulation, heavily accenting where no accents are written. Why? I guess they think it’s more authentic. After all – it is Russian Music – whatever that means. Gypsy influences? Peasants stomping heavily in their rough white shirts, kicking up their heels in a macho display? Stereotypical BS, if you ask me. The piece – the music – just doesn’t seem to warrant it. Think about the Russian players of the time, especially the ones Prokofiev admired, like David Oistrakh (yes, I know the Flute Sonata was not written for him!). Oistrakh played with passion and verve, but I suspect the guy did not have a crass bone in his body. Full blooded and full bodied, but never out of control. Why should we not play the Flute Sonata with the finesse of the great players of Prokofiev’s day?

Today we seek “authenticity”; we ask ourselves what was the flute sound he had in mind? Who were the flutists of his day? It turns out, as I learned from Ms. Harper’s article, that the flutist that most impressed him was Georges Barrere! The Oistrakh of flutists! And not a Russian, but a Frenchman exported to America.

I don’t have a clear point in this post, I realize. Maybe only this: we can go overboard with interpretation. Prokofiev was a cosmopolitan figure, and a lover of the Classics. He carefully notated exactly what he wanted and all we have to do is go for it with our minds and hearts open to the music.


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