Full Cycle

Anne-Marie McDermott surveys Prokofiev's nine piano sonatas.

Whether they're fit for the task or not, pianists great and small too readily slog their way through each and every Beethoven sonata, in concert and on disc.

But Anne-Marie McDermott, who counts as a small pianist only in the physical sense, refuses to do a Beethoven cycle.

"I don't feel a deep conviction about every one of the Beethoven sonatas at this point in my life," she admits.

So instead, she's coming to Tucson to play all the piano sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev, a less venerated--and less overplayed--composer.

"I'm completely in love with each of his sonatas," McDermott says. "That's crucial."

McDermott believes more people would love all nine of the 20th-century Soviet composer's piano sonatas if they'd take the trouble to hear them. That task will be no trouble at all when McDermott presents the entire set in three concerts February 5, 7 and 9 at the UA's Crowder Hall.

Unexpectedly, McDermott comes to this music through the works of a composer who lived exactly two centuries before Prokofiev.

"I'm a huge Bach fanatic; I play Bach every day of my life," she says. "And I've always felt a strong connection between Bach and Prokofiev in their style of writing. There's tremendous clarity. Every line matters; every voice begins and ends clearly, and needs to be heard distinctly. And then in Prokofiev's writing there's the passion, the intense depth of emotions. Sometimes the music is sarcastic--he has an amazing sense of irony--but Prokofiev also writes in a stark, melancholic style like nobody I know. It just grabs your heart and doesn't let go. Several of his slow movements will start off very sweet and simple, but in eight to 12 bars he injects some harmonic element that twists your gut. He couldn't just be sweet, because he lived in a complicated world."

That was a world of political upheaval and, ultimately, cultural oppression. Prokofiev wrote his first piano sonata in 1907, in the last years of both Tsarist rule and the Romantic movement. He wrote his final sonata in 1947, as he was about to face artistic condemnation from the Stalinist flunkies controlling Soviet culture.

McDermott's career, which blossomed in the 1990s, has brought steady praise and prizes. Based in New York, she is a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. McDermott has performed in Tucson several times in the past decade for the Tucson Symphony and the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music.

She may be devoted to Prokofiev's piano sonatas now, but it's hardly been a lifelong love affair. As a student, she was already sick of hearing Prokofiev's seventh sonata, the most popular of the set. She rebelled by learning the comparatively neglected sixth sonata instead. In 1997, she recorded that and the fifth sonata for Arabesque, and although the label asked her to record the rest of the cycle, the project never came together.

Two years ago, McDermott started playing all the sonatas in concert, individually. Now, Arabesque has committed to completing the CD project, for July release. Almost everything is in the can; two days after her final Tucson concert, McDermott will go back to New York and record the fourth and, yes, seventh sonatas, finally completing the set.

Why has it taken her two years to come around to playing the entire batch at once in concert?

"It's like with fine wine, which has to age," she says. "Certain sonatas need more time to fester inside your mind and your soul."

McDermott won't play the set chronologically; she's grouping the sonatas to display their variety to best advantage.

"I like to approach each one as its own complete little world," she says, "but there are overriding qualities to the whole cycle: great clarity of line, great muscularity. He's one of the only composers ever who uses the piano as a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument, at the same time. That's just a blast. Being a New Yorker, I need that outlet.

"But each sonata is very different from the others, and complete in itself. From the very opening of each sonata, he very quickly establishes a unique mood. The beginning of the first sonata is youthful and exuberant; what sets off the second is the clarity, the muscularity and the joy. The third starts to go a little further out harmonically. The fourth is very stark and psychotic; the first movement is a play between light and dark. Then you get to the fifth sonata, where the beginning is sweet and simple.

"In the sixth sonata, all hell breaks loose: It's biting, it's ugly, it's fiery, it's a war from the very opening measure. The opening of the seventh is a bit militaristic; there's a coldness to the first movement, whereas in the first movement of the sixth there's a desperation. The eighth sonata opens like Schubert; it's dolce, it's sweet, it's searching. Then the ninth opens in a way that's very reflective and barren, but it's beautiful, which is not a quality you would associate with the other sonatas.

"I feel like I need to lift weights in order to play the whole cycle. These sonatas really demand your full attention and your full immersion when you're performing them. It's like I'm meant to suffer if I'm really going to experience what's going on in them."

For the audience, on the other hand, the Prokofiev cycle should be a gripping but hardly painful experience.

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