PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 63

Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 63

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka (now Krasnoye), Government of Eka terinoslav (Dniepropetrovsk), in Ukraine on April 23, 1891, and died in Nikolina Gora near Moscow on March 5, 1953, not quite an hour before Stalin. Prokofiev composed the Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1935 for the French violinist Robert Soetens; at the same time he was working on his ballet score Romeo and Juliet. The Violin Concerto No. 2 was Prokofiev's last Western European commission, and he noted that "the principal theme of the first written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid." At the premiere, Soetens was the soloist, Enrique Fernandez Arbos conducted, and the date was December 1, 1935. Jascha Heifetz was soloist and Pierre Monteux conducted in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in January 1940. In the most recent SFS performances, in January 2011, Leonidas Kavakos was soloist and David Robertson conducted. In addition to solo violin, the score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, castanets, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-six minutes.

By 1935 Prokofiev was tiring of the restless existence that is reflected in his account of the genesis of this concerto. He would continue to travel as conductor and pianist until the outbreak of war in 1939, but a yearning to settle—and to settle in his homeland—had been growing stronger. He had left Russia in March 1918 and returned for the first time in 1927. His repatriation by degrees continued in 1933, when he gave concerts in Russia and was asked to score the film Lieutenant Kijé. His visits became more and more frequent, and in 1936, he, his wife, and their two children took an apartment in Moscow. One of his first projects was a modest work for a children's theater there: he called it Peter and the Wolf.

Assessment of Prokofiev was long muddied by politics. Soviet critics maintained that he had lost himself during his long sojourn in the West and that he found what he had lost only when he came home. Conversely, Western writers tended to deplore Prokofiev’s decision to go back, many implying that the demands of Socialist Realist aesthetics ruined him as an artist.

There are different Prokofievs. People who find their ideal Prokofiev in Romeo and Juliet may well find The Fiery Angel unpleasantly scratchy. One can also understand that those whose favorite Prokofiev is the Symphony No. 2 might be disappointed in the famous Fifth. More of his sharp-edged and fairly dissonant music, which he himself might, with Stravinskian self-irony, have joined his critics in calling brittle and "heartless," comes from his earlier years; most of his music that is more mellifluous in style, painted with a broader brush, and less inclined to humor comes from his later years in the Soviet Union, when he can even seem downright self-conscious in his concern not to rub the wrong way. There is little of the lushness of Romeo and Juliet and War and Peace in his early work and almost none of the sharpness of The Buffoon, Visions fugitives, or Suggestion diabolique in his post-1936 music. But the lyric melody that opens the Violin Concerto No. 1 came to Prokofiev in 1915 and was not rejected by him in Paris; the Sixth and Seventh symphonies aren’t exactly mushy. He himself recognized in his life work four "basic lines," which he called classical, modern, motoric, and lyrical. All are present all the time, although of course in different balances. The Violin Concerto No. 2 is a work in which these characteristics live together convincingly.

The violinist begins the Concerto alone, playing a slightly elaborated G-minor chord, ruminating on this very simple matter for eight measures. At first, the ear tells us that the music is in 5/4, but after only two times through a five-beat phrase, the line settles into a regular 4/4 meter. (The notation on the page is in 4/4 all along.) At the end of the eighth measure, the violin arrives on F-sharp, the leading tone of G minor, and with the obvious intention of moving on to G. It is at this point that the orchestra enters. It reads the F-sharp not as the leading tone of G minor but as the dominant of B minor, and so it is in this remote new key that it enters, repeating the violin's theme. It is the kind of harmonic shift Prokofiev was fond of all his life. The orchestral sound—just muted violas and basses, two octaves apart—is austere. Prokofiev had first thought of writing a "concert sonata," and although the work became more concerto-like than he had at first imagined, the mood is often intimate in a way that suggests he had not entirely let go of his initial idea. It is a versatile theme, and very soon Prokofiev lets us hear it as a canon with the violin trailing the cellos and basses by half a measure.

After further play with fragments of this theme, the music slows slightly for a new melody, one so sweetly lyric that we could almost imagine a page from one of the Romeo and Juliet notebooks had found its way into the sketches for the Concerto. Not long before beginning work on this score, Prokofiev, sincerely but also with a canny sense for what was wanted in the Soviet Union, had issued a manifesto proclaiming that "what we need is great music." (No losing points there.) The sine qua non of great music, he went on to declare, was that it be "melodious [and] that the melody must be simple and comprehensible, without being repetitive or trivial. . . . We must seek a new simplicity." This quasi-Romeo theme here is like a textbook demonstration of what he meant. This melody and the first idea provide Prokofiev with all the material he requires for this movement: his harmonic energy, at its strongest here, and his inventive violin writing carry him brilliantly to the end.

Prokofiev gently sets the second movement in motion with a simple arpeggiated accompaniment in triplets. (The classic example is the opening of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.) Prokofiev liked the effect well enough to bring it back, again to beautiful effect, at the start of the Adagio of his Fifth Symphony. Here, as the pizzicato triplets continue, the solo violin enters with one of Prokofiev's most inspired melodies. The slight sense of rhythmic dissonance produced by the way its duplets are set against the orchestra’s triplets gives it just the right amount of edge. This and the Romeo theme in the first movement are indeed examples of a manner one would not have found in Prokofiev's music before the 1930s. (What would Georges Auric, who condemned the Concerto No. 1 as "Mendelssohnian," have said?) Here Prokofiev gives us another of his characteristic harmonic shifts when, at the conclusion of the violin's first long clause, he lifts the music and puts it down in B major—but pianissimo, dolcissimo,and with the strings muted.

At the close of the paragraph, Prokofiev brings in a slightly faster interlude. The accompaniment is stripped down, and we hear a constant succession of rapid triplets, some in repeated notes, some as mordents, and a few arpeggiated. The principal melody returns, now with the accompaniment enriched and culminating in a magically scored passage in which the solo violin scurries like a dragonfly on a pond. A second interlude, also faster than the main tempo, offers an effective combination of highly energized melodic writing both for orchestra and solo with busy figurations. When the first theme returns, the orchestral violins get to play the melody, which is what they must have been yearning to do all this time. The soloist adds a highflying descant. The very brief coda, with muted cellos, horns, and clarinets reminding us of the melody's opening, is especially lovely.

After these dreams, the finale jolts us into a rude awakening. This is dance music, and I would guess that Prokofiev added the castanets and other suggestions of Spanish flavoring because he knew that the Concerto would first be played in Madrid. Here Prokofiev indulges his appetite for dissonance and fierce accent, so firmly kept in check in the first two movements. The closing pages are marked tumultuoso. There is a story that once, when Prokofiev played his Third Piano Concerto with Serge Koussevitzky, he assured his partner, easily thrown by odd rhythms, "Let the Maestro be calm. This is not Stravinsky—there are no complicated meters, no dirty tricks." Conducting the American premiere of the Violin Concerto No. 2 with Heifetz in 1937, Koussevitzky must have sweated.

Michael Steinberg

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: Gil Shaham with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Itzhak Perlman with Robert Rozhdestvensky conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics Encore)  |  Maxim Vengerov with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Teldec)

Reading: Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking)  |  Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, translated and edited by Robinson (Northeastern)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writing, translated and edited by the composer’s son Oleg Prokofiev (Faber & Faber)

(June 2014)