Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 16 

Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 16

SERGEI SERGEIEVICH PROKOFIEV
BORN: April 23, 1891 (so he always claimed, though his birth certificate said April 27. Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine
DIED: March 5, 1953. Moscow

COMPOSED: During the winter and early spring of 1912-13, completed in April 1913. The concerto is dedicated to the memory of Maximilian Schmidthof, a friend of Prokofiev’s at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory who committed suicide in April 1913, just as Prokofiev completed the score. That score was unfortunately destroyed in a fire, and so Prokofiev reconstructed—or, better put, rewrote—the piece in 1923, probably continuing into 1924

WORLD PREMIERE: Original version—September 5, 1913. The composer was soloist and Alexandr Aslanov conducted, at the Vauxhall in Pavlosk Park, just outside Saint Petersburg. Reconstructed version—May 8, 1924. The composer was again soloist and Serge Koussevitzky conducted, in Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1953.  Jorge Bolet was soloist, Erich Leinsdorf conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2012. Yuja Wang was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 31 mins

THE BACKSTORY  The first two of Sergei Prokofiev’s five piano concertos date from his years as a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied from 1904-14. He capped off that period by performing his First Piano Concerto at his graduation from the Conservatory, on which occasion he was awarded high honors and the coveted Anton Rubinstein Prize, which included a new grand piano. He would shortly embark on a dual career as a touring pianist and a composer, and he managed to balance the competing demands of those domains adeptly. He was an excellent pianist of distinct personality; the critic Boris de Schloezer described his pianistic style as “brilliant, rather dry, but extremely polished, pure and ‘finished,’” and a listener has no trouble discerning that those traits ideally convey his works in performance.

“The charges of surface brilliance and certain ‘soccer-player’ tendencies in the First Concerto induced me to strive for greater depth in the Second,” reported Prokofiev in his “Soviet Diary” of 1927. Notwithstanding the commendable qualities of the First Concerto—a remarkable achievement, and not just for a twenty-one-year-old—the Second does indeed surpass it even though it was begun only a few months after the completion of its predecessor. Certainly it is a more imposing work: the Second is twice as long. That extra time is well spent, and the Second Concerto impresses with the variety of moods it traverses and the skill with which Prokofiev balances the contrasts of its material. It does not, however, come up short in the department of athletic brilliance, as Prokofiev’s comment might be taken to imply. Quite the contrary: many pianists would agree that from a technical viewpoint it is the most unremittingly taxing of all the Prokofiev piano concertos. The composer had not set out with that goal in mind, and in the run-up to the premiere he complained about the amount of time and trouble he had to invest in learning the solo part he had composed—this from a soon-to-be first-prize piano graduate of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory!

The premiere evoked a dynamic audience response. The critics were divided. Conservative voices greeted the piece with outrage or disdain: Yuri Kurdyumov, in Peterburgsky Listok, vented that it was “a Babel of insane sounds heaped upon one another without rhyme or reason,” and Nikolai Bernstein, in Peterburgskaya Gazeta, opined of the work’s terrifying cadenzas that “one might think [they] were created by capriciously emptying an inkwell on the page.” In addition to its official review of the premiere of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, the Peterburgskaya Gazeta ran a second, overtly jovial account, signed by “Non-Critic,” on August 25/September 7, 1913. It brings the event very much alive:

The debut of the piano cubist and futurist has excited universal interest. On the train to Pavlovsk one heard on all sides, “Prokofiev, Prokofiev, Prokofiev.” … A youth with the face of a high-school student appears on the platform. It is Sergei Prokofiev. He seats himself at the piano and starts either wiping the keyboard or testing the keys. All this is done with a dry, sharp touch. The audience is bewildered. Some people are indignant. One couple gets up and moves towards the exit: “Such music is enough to drive you mad.” Others: “What is he doing? Trying to make fun of us?” More listeners follow the first couple from various parts of the hall. Prokofiev plays the second movement of his concerto. … The more daring members of the audience hiss. … Finally the young artist concludes his concerto with a mercilessly dissonant combination of brasses. The scandal in the audience is now full-blown. The majority hisses. Prokofiev bows defiantly and plays an encore. The audience rushes away. On all sides there are exclamations: “The devil take all this Futurist music! We want to hear something pleasant! We can hear music like this from our cats at home.” Another group, the progressive critics, are in raptures: “A work of genius! How original! What spirit and invention!”

Among the progressive critics the writer cited would have been Vyacheslav Karatygin, who, in the newspaper Rech, took a longer view: while the piece “left listeners frozen with fright, hair standing on end” and although “the audience hissed,” he insisted that “this means nothing. Ten years from now it [the public] will atone for last night’s jeering by unanimously applauding a new composer with a European reputation.” But ten years from then many music-lovers would also be getting their first taste of this work. In 1918, Prokofiev had left his Revolution-wracked native land for Paris. His manuscript for this yet-unpublished concerto remained behind, and it was lost in a fire. In 1923 (and probably through early 1924) Prokofiev finally reconstructed the work from his remaining sketches, and while he was at it (he claimed) he incorporated a good deal of new composition that reflected the experience he had gained in the intervening decade, during which he had composed his famous Third Piano Concerto. The Second Concerto as it now exists is therefore not really the same piece the audience heard in 1913. The audience at the unveiling of the revised Second Concerto, in 1924 in Paris, proved to be as resistant as the Russian listeners had been at the “first premiere” a decade earlier, but now it was for the opposite reason: Prokofiev was criticized for not being edgy enough for Roaring-Twenties Paris.

THE MUSIC  Indeed, the drawn-out piano solo at the concerto’s opening seems practically plucked from Rachmaninoff, although its melodic contour does display the sidestepping we associate with Prokofiev. This music is marked narrante (narrating)—an unusual indication—and yet one often feels that this concerto is telling a story, narrating some undisclosed program. By the time the movement reaches its midpoint we seem to be ushered into a courtly dance-hall, with the piano playing a theme that is essentially a gavotte.  This gives way to a fascinating chapter in which the orchestra enunciates the melody while the piano decorates it with splashes of scales. The movement’s end escalates into powerful machine-age swaggering and then quickly recedes into quietude.

A busy scherzo follows, full of rapid-fire octaves in sixteenth notes that give the pianist no rest. For all its virtuosic intensity, the scherzo passes quickly, running only about two and a half minutes. A sort of relief comes with the slow paces of the third movement, which seems on the whole more serious in intent than we might expect of a movement titled Intermezzo—sometimes even terrifying. The orchestra adds a few industrial touches, resembling immense foghorns or factory alarms, not unrelated to some of the sounds heard in Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. For his finale, Prokofiev serves up another movement of terrific vigor. Some listeners may find that its principal theme recalls the opening melody of the first movement, although here ratcheted up in tempo and spirit. The second theme has an unmistakable Russian flavor, perhaps a descendant of the oxcart in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Again the orchestra lets loose some savage sounds in this movement, but the music can turn on a dime from the muscular to the mysterious. This concerto makes fierce technical demands on the soloist, who in this finale must maintain impressive strength through an extended cadenza and on to a crashing conclusion.

This is a tour de force among piano concertos, and even Prokofiev experienced anxiety when playing it. In a diary he kept during a 1927 visit back home to the Soviet Union, he reported on what went through his mind when he performed this piece in Moscow: “I come out to play in a more or less calm frame of mind. But I do not manage to stay calm during the most difficult parts: in the cadenza (specifically where I mark colossale), and at the beginning of the third movement, where the hands keep jumping over one another, I play badly. However, the rest I play well and with enthusiasm.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Yuja Wang with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Yundi Li with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Kun Woo Paik, with Antoni Wit conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Naxos)  |  Vladimir Ashkenazy with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  |  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)

Reading: Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale)  |  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 Writings, translated and edited by the composer’s son Oleg Prokofiev (Faber & Faber)

(April 2017)