Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine, on April 23, 1891, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He began the Piano Concerto No. 2 in the winter of 1912-1913, completing it in April 1913, while still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. With A.P. Aslanov conducting, he introduced it on September 5, 1913, at the Vauxhall at Pavlovsk, the imperial park outside the Russian capital. This version was lost in a fire during the 1917 Revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed the work from his sketches and reintroduced it on May 8, 1924, in Paris, Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Jorge Bolet was the first pianist to play the work with the San Francisco Symphony, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting, in January 1953. In the most recent performances, in May 2009, Yuja Wang was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.
In its original form, one in which it scandalized more people than it delighted, this concerto is the work of a young man just moving into his twenties. We have no way of knowing how close the surviving version comes to what Prokofiev played at Pavlovsk for the Russian Musical Society, that original having been lost in a fire, but the composer wished it understood that in creating the 1924 version he had taken advantage of everything he had learned in a rich and eventful decade: "It was so completely rewritten," he wrote to friends in Moscow, "that it might almost be considered No. 4," the famous Concerto No. 3 having appeared in 1921. A few who remembered the early performances suggested that Prokofiev exaggerated, but the matter is past settling.
Only a couple of months separate Prokofiev's completion of his First Piano Concerto and the beginning of the Second, but it sounds like a long journey from those orotund chords that open the First to the prickliness of its successor. Prokofiev definitely meant to make the new concerto quite different: "The charges of surface brilliance and a certain 'soccer' quality in the First led me to strive for greater depth of content in the Second." That he achieved his aim—certainly attaining far greater variety and range—is not in doubt, but he did not do it by giving up that certain “soccer” quality. Prokofiev's Second is one of the most challenging of all concertos to the pianist-as-athlete.
The premiere at Pavlovsk, the critic Viacheslav Karatigin reported, “left listeners frozen with fright, hair standing on end. . . . The public hissed. This means nothing. Ten years from now it will atone for last night's catcalls by unanimously applauding a new composer with a European reputation.” Karatigin's colleagues were not so sympathetic, and Prokofiev's biographer Israel Nestyev quotes their expressions of outrage: "a Babel of insane sounds heaped upon one another without rhyme or reason" (Yuri Kurdiumov in Peterburgsky Listok), "a cacophony of sounds that has nothing in common with civilized music. . . . One might think [the cadenzas] were created by capriciously emptying an inkwell on the page" (N. Bernstein in Peterburgskaya Gazeta).
The concerto did not much please its Paris audience in 1924 either. Later, Prokofiev noted wryly that his practicing had maddened his neighbor, who had taken to building bookshelves so that the piano would come as a relief after the hammering. The new Prokofiev baby also got more than its normal quota of hours in the park during this time. Prokofiev hardly ever played the Second Concerto again and on his international tours made his fortune with the brilliant but less taxing Third. In the Soviet Union, Maria Yudina scored an enormous success in 1938 with the by-then totally unfamiliar Second, but even there it did not take and hold a firm place in the repertory until after the war. Internationally it was rediscovered in the late sixties and early seventies by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Malcolm Frager, after which it began to make its way at least to the edge of the standard repertory.
Prokofiev begins gently with two measures of orchestral stage-setting, leading to two more measures of piano vamp until the appearance of the first theme, a melody of surprising extensions. Prokofiev wants a certain "speaking" quality in the performance at this point, for he has marked the theme narrante. A contrasting theme introduces an element of caprice and a new repertory of colors. Most of the development and even much of the recapitulation take the form of a huge cadenza, maybe the hugest in any concerto. (The instruction to the pianist at the climax is colossale.) The orchestral continuation is likewise larger than life, but then a modest restatement of the opening melody brings the movement to a quiet close.
The Scherzo is a tour de force of perpetual motion, of non-stop sixteenth notes for the soloist. "Intermezzo," at least in the piano repertory, tends to suggest a rather contained sort of music, but this one is fierce. The pianist Sviatoslav Richter said that to him it evoked "a dragon devouring its young." There is something here of the grinding harshness of the Scythian Suite of 1915, and it is a model for those sinister marches that rage their way through the pages of Shostakovich. Prokofiev's inventiveness in piano figuration is remarkable.
In a sense, the second and third movements are both intermezzi, music on a far smaller scale than the first movement and the finale. The last movement reverts to the expansive manner of the first and also has a cadenza as its focal point. The entry into this cadenza is one of Prokofiev's wittiest strokes in the work. This movement brings together the Scythian wildness of the Intermezzo and the touching, rather Mussorgskian narrative lyricism of the first movement's Andantino. That the harmonic boldness of the last pages left some of the vacationers at Pavlovsk with their hair standing on end, one need not doubt.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Vladimir Feltsman with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (CBS) | Vladimir Ashkenazy with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca Double Decker) | Evgeni Kissin with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics) | Yundi Li with Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Reading: Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking) | Prokofiev: A Biography, From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale University Press) | Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, edited and translated by Robinson (Northeastern University Press) | Prokofiev’s Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by Oleg Prokofiev (Faber and Faber) | Prokofiev’s Diaries, 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips (Cornell University Press) | Sergei Prokofiev: His Musical Life, by Israel Vladimirovich Nestyev (Knopf)