Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16 (1912-13) revised 1923
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat,
Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major,
Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat Major, Op.53, for the left hand (1931)
Piano Concerto No.5 in G major, Op.55 (1932)
5 Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary, p. 243.
6 Ibid, pp. 60-61.
7 Ibid, p. 246.
“The charges of showy brilliance and certain ‘acrobatic’ tendencies in the First Concerto induced me to strive for greater depth in the Second.”(5)
Rarely this exposed, Prokofiev allows us an occasional glimpse into his soul with this grand romantic statement. The firm structural pillars of this four-movement monument support a rich, emotional vocabulary, and Prokofiev returns to the bravura romantic pianism of his youth to make a strong dramatic declaration. Dedicated to the memory of his dear friend, Max Schmidthoff, whose suicide at a very young age deeply affected the young Prokofiev, the haunting melody of the opening theme conveys feelings of loss and nostalgia, a yearning for what might have been. The emotional extremes contained in this movement range from childlike innocence to the depths of despair – rage verging toward craziness. This is the drama of Dostoevsky and the exciting conclusion of the solo cadenza might well depict Raskolnikov’s desperate plight in Crime and Punishment. Prokofiev has painted a vivid expressionistic canvas using bold strokes and strong colours.
Performing this work resembles a climb up a steep mountain. The pianist thinks the peak has been reached after getting through the extraordinary and colossale solo cadenza in the first movement, but cannot stop to rest because of the perpetuum mobile which follows. Even though functioning as a lighter diversion meant to cleanse the palette, this demanding second movement scherzo provides a real tour-de-force with its sharp wit and jabbing accents. The third movement Intermezzo, another brief interlude in preparation for the grand finale, focuses on Prokofiev’s brutal primitivism to reveal the more sarcastic side of his humour. The emotional heaviness of the opening movement is balanced by the finale’s large proportions, also including a solo cadenza as part of its development section, as well as original thematic material reminiscent of a Russian folk song. After performing the four movements, the pianist realises he has not climbed just any mountain; he’s made it to the top of Mount Everest!
I recall reading some letters in which Prokofiev complained about having to give up his vacation time to practice this difficult work, knowing that if he didn't do his homework every day, he would never be able to perform the Concerto on tour. How reassuring this has to be for the pianist struggling to master its difficulties. This account from Prokofiev’s diaries prior to a performance of the Second Concerto will sound very familiar to most performers. (It’s taped into my piano score and read before every performance – a great help!)
“I am nervous and ask myself why. Vanity, of course. What if they say that Prokofiev himself plays his own works badly? I try to persuade myself not to look at things in that light: supposing he does make mistakes, what does it really matter? The concerto is still the concerto. This line of reasoning is of help to me and 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. There is no doubt that the first movement goes down well. Before the scherzo we take a little break. No question that this concerto produces a far stronger impression than the Third. We repeat the Scherzo pushing it a bit too hard and smoothing over some of its articulated sharpness.”(6)
In the Second Concerto, the solo piano is regarded as equal to the opposing orchestra, frequently engaging in dialogue or in the completion of the other’s sentences, occasionally functioning as an accompanist and often pitted in direct opposition. Bravura pianism is used to prolong and expand the piano sound needed to match the colours and sonorities of Prokofiev’s rich orchestral palette. The pianist must be equipped to confront its larger opponent without weakening. Here, virtuosity has a higher calling than was manifested by the First Concerto. Prokofiev uses bravura to mask his deepest feelings, and he makes the performer work very hard to uncover them. As soon as he realises he has been exposed and made vulnerable (i.e. in the opening theme and the Russian folk theme of the finale), he brings out the pianism as a foil to hide behind.
Unfortunately we will never know what the original concerto sounded like when it was premiered by Prokofiev in 1913 because the complete orchestral score was lost in a fire during the Revolution, but much has been written about the initial audience reaction.
" ‘To hell with this futurist music!’ people were heard to exclaim. ‘We came here for pleasure. The cats on the roof make better music!’ The modernist critics were in raptures. ‘Brilliant!’ they cried. ‘What freshness!’ ‘What temperament and originality.’ "(7)
Nothing has changed. The opposing camps still exist: the conservatives who never know what to make of these strange sounds and the avant-garde who always love dissonance and respond just because of its newness.
Prokofiev was forced to re-write and re-orchestrate the composition in 1923 from a piano reduction; however, most of the revisions were confined to the orchestral score. He jokingly said, “I have so completely rewritten the Second Concerto that it might almost be considered the Fourth.” (The Fourth had not yet been written.) At its second première eleven years later in 1924, the audience again reacted unfavourably. It was now the Parisians who dismissed the Concerto as a recycling of old worn-out, dated material. The composer had failed because his music was unable to shock his very “sophisticated” audience. Once again, Prokofiev fell between the cracks of two extreme camps and neither dared claim him as their own.
For me, the Second is Prokofiev’s masterwork in concerto form. It represents a successful reconciliation of two opposing forces; the sportsmanlike complexity of his natural pianism is made compatible with a profound emotional simplicity. He uses his pianism to veil a poignant, sensitive soul. The challenge for the performer is to uncover it – but don’t expect Prokofiev to make that easy! Next Back