Piano Concerto No. 2 (Prokofiev)

Piano Concerto No. 2 (Prokofiev)

Sergei Prokofiev set to work on his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op 16 in 1912 and completed it in 1913. He himself performing as solo pianist, it was premiered on 23rd August the same year at Pavlovsk. [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/aboutmusic/p59_prokofiev_concertono2.shtml BBC Proms] ] Most of the audience reacted intensely. The concerto's wild temperament left some of the progressive listeners exalted, whereas others were horrified by the jarring and at the time modern sound ("To hell with this futurist music!"/ "What is he doing, making fun of us?"/ "The cats on the roof make better music!"). [ [http://www.sprkfv.net/journal/three04/manyfaces2.html Sergei Prokofiev Foundation] ] [ [http://www.sfsymphony.org/templates/pgmnote.asp?nodeid=4239&callid=856 San Francisco Symphony Program Notes] ] Today it is generally recognised as a masterpiece.

The work is dedicated to the memory of Maximilian Schmidthof, a friend of Prokofiev's at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, who had committed suicide in AprilSteinberg, M. "The Concerto: A Listener's Guide", p.344-347, Oxford (1998).] , having written a farewell letter to Prokofiev. [http://www.naxos.com/mainsite/blurbs_reviews.asp?item_code=8.550565&catNum=550565&filetype=About%20this%20Recording&language=English Naxos.com: online liner notes] ] The original orchestral score was destroyed in a fire during the Russian Revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed the concerto from his sketches in for a 1923 and re-premiered the concerto in Paris on May 8, 1924 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Prokofiev himself considered the 1924 revision to be substantially different than the lost original stating "It is so completely rewritten that it might almost be considered No. 4". (The third concerto had premiered in 1921) It remains one of the hardest piano concertos to play.

Movements and Scoring

The work is scored for piano solo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine and strings. It consists of four movements lasting some 29 to 37 minutes.

#"Andantino-Allegretto" (10–14 minutes)
#"Scherzo: Vivace" (2–3 minutes)
#"Intermezzo: Allegro moderato" (5–9 minutes)
#"Allegro tempestoso" (10–13 minutes)


The first and last movements are each around twelve minutes long and constitute some of the most dramatic music in all of Prokofiev's piano concertos. They both contain long and developed cadenzas with the first movement's cadenza alone taking up almost the entire last half of the movement.


The first movement is opened quietly by strings and clarinet. After a two-bar staccato tune, which appears to be no more than an intro, the piano takes over, constructing a second "G minor" "narrante" theme upon a left hand accompaniment of breathing undulation. A brief "forte", backed by the orchestra, leads to a third, expansive, walking theme performed again by the solo pianist. Still carried by the wavelike motions in the left hand, the music ebbs and flows, gradually receding to a "piano". The orchestra returns and, at the second attempt succeeds in leading the music to a first climax marked "cantando ed espressivo" by the composer. Strings and woodwind steadily wander through the said extensive third theme, attaining at last "fortissimo". The volume then rapidly diminishes to "piano" before the soloist comes to a stop.

The orchestra is left suspended in a reverie which slowly transmutes into a new, faster, more forceful kind of breathing. The piano reappears in a very free "A minor", continuing the drive with a new theme. Over the next pages, piano and orchestra chase each other, the orchestral bass section finally cantering up to two fortissimo hits. The volume decreases a little, though never allowing the music to relax. Four whipping bars, "ff" as well as "marcatissimo", put a more or less vicious and peremptory end to the phrase. After a more thoughtful four bars of "p" the soloist leaves the stage with a widespread arpeggio. The flutes sink into a dreamy melody, soon to be joined by the oboes and tremolando strings, the melody gyrating somnambulistically and evanescing "pp" after eight bars.

The soloist awakes as the orchestra departs, yawning in "G minor" as it were, and beginning a notorious five-minute cadenza. It is noted as one of the longer and more difficult cadenzas in the classical piano repertoire, taking the listener all the way to the climax. Noted in two staves, the piano plays a reprise of its own opening theme. A third staff, which requires the pianist to perform large jumps with both hands frequently, contains the initially orchestral accompaniment. Another short "forte" gives way to an entry of the third theme, which then hides ever more effectively beneath shivering and growling bundles of notes. Quickly regaining clarity a crescendo emerges, spreading out a grand "fortissimo" rendition of the soloist's opening theme, striding along theatrically above a broadly extended form of the undulating triplet accompaniment which the piano enters into the piece with. The triplets are replaced by thudding full-length quavers, as the volume achieves a momentary "fff". Several seconds of grotesque crashing, which arrange themselves around an arcane opening theme culminate in a whirl of sextuplet semiquaver chords, up down and up once more, spanning almost the entire breadth of the piano. "Only" "ff" but "pesante" with moody determination there follows a combination of the epic third and a regularly repeated, if abbreviated second theme, alternately played by the right and left hand. The piano is, again, noted in three staves. "Con effetto" initiates the last four bars of this event, a discordant cluster of syncopated electric shocks and explosive flashes.

The accumulated charge is then released in a premature climax ("G minor"), "fff" and "colossale", which consists of oscillating triplet semiquaver runs across the upper four octaves of the piano, kept in rhythm by a leaping left-hand crotchet accompaniment. Prokofiev himself describes this as one of the very hardest places in the concerto. However, the first movement is considered to be the easiest among the four. Embedded in this from the beginning on is yet another entry of the third theme lasting ten bars, as does the original. Again, there is adjoined an only slightly quieter combination of the third and second theme, where heavy chords, each with its own acciaccatura-octave, suggest trembling foundations. Here is the only place in the concerto where the piano once makes it all the way up to "C8".The next four bars are recognisable as those four, that follow the very first entry of the third theme. The ear is tricked into hearing yelling glissandi in what sometimes are and otherwise approach hemidemisemiquaver rushes. The last bars before the absolute climax drown themselves in thundering bass notes, occasionally sending up ineffectual distress flares. They are marked "tumultuoso" and reach supreme discord as "C sharp minor" collides with "D minor".

As both hands move apart, to embrace the piano "fff" in D minor, an accent on every note, the orchestra announces its return, string quartet and timpani swelling furiously from "p" to "ff". The listener is exposed to the apocalyptic blare of several horns, trombones, trumpets and tuba, which stretch the seemingly unimportant staccato opening theme to twice its length and then repeat it, seeming to quieten down a little, while piano, flutes and strings still shriek in unison up and down the higher ranges. Two towering cymbal crashes end the cataclysm in G minor.

A decrescendo brings the music back to an almost spooky "piano" within the next two bars. The piano, accompanied by strings and its own now only feebly undulating left hand, timidly puts forth the second "narrante" theme, echoes its last notes, repeats it "pianissimo", ever fading. Pizzicato strings meaningfully point several more times to the opening theme, the significance of which has now been revealed. Both piano and orchestra decline to minimum volume, playing at last nothing more than the fifth and the octave. One deep "G" ends the movement.

Scherzo: Vivace

The scherzo is of an exceptionally strict form considering the piano part. The right and left hand play a stubborn unisono, almost 1500 semiquavers each, literally without a moment's pause. At around ten notes a second and with hardly any variations in speed, this movement lasts circa two-and-a-half minutes and is an unusual concentration challenge to the pianist. It displays the "motor" line of the five "lines" (characters) Prokofiev describes in his own music. (Other such pieces include Toccata in D minor and the last movement of Piano Sonata No. 7).

Unlike the other three movements, it is mainly in "D minor".

A fortissimo trill leaps at the listener announcing the energy that prevails throughout the movement, then slowly calms itself a little, finding its way down to a mezzoforte. The orchestra eggs the soloist on with its regular quavers. As soon as the volume steadies itself, the trill begins to descend chromatically, never resting. Nearly two octaves below the initial pitch, the piano makes several crescendo efforts to rise again. As it settles on a consistently ascending two bar pattern, "mp", the orchestra gives up the few irregularities it has recently adopted, driving the music upwards. A second trill charges forth, a major seventh higher than the first and is left behind involuntarily, the percussion trying to prevent the descent, before soloist and orchestra join forces to attempt a third outburst, an octave above the original. This takes only a moment to fall back into a series of uncertain modulations of key as well as volume.

The tireless piano runs lead the way seamlessly to an "A-flat major" side theme of a dance-like character, just slightly less hectic than the trills. The orchestral accompaniment adds to this effect by interrupting its hurried pulse for a moment.

This, too, doesn't last and twenty seconds later the music is well on its way to a fourth trill. The decrease and following return of tension do not work the same way as they have done previously, the music appears to be steering towards another sudden fortissimo but then becomes stuck in repeated, strident discords between brass and piano. The last bursts before the end begins to descend immediately, leaving no time for the volume to die down before the melody can sink in its own turn. Bars before the movement reaches its conclusion the piano whirls around between several tightly-packed, hinted trills, then gathers momentum and rushes from the bottom up, finally firing four consecutive notes at the tritonus ("G sharp") and closing off the movement with a unison tonic quaver "D".

Intermezzo: Allegro moderato

A walking bass theme thuds heavily (pesante) and fortissimo out of the silence following the Scherzo. The music has returned to "G minor". Strings, bassoon, tuba, timpani and gran cassa (bass drum) march along with moody determination. Trombones sharply pronounce a "D", followed by tuba and oboe in a sudden diminuendo. For several bars, the orchestra issues ever waning threats, at the same time making undeterrably for the tonic. At which point the piano enters and the music immediately gains force, jerking its way up octave by octave percussively, then sinking back and gathering weight. The music speedily flies up to an exuberant, prancing ff which retreats slowly and unwillingly. After a brief, more pensive piano part, the orchestra launches into action, articulating again its crescendo threats. The piano takes over once more, this time tripletting its way up to the top and redrawing chromatically. A second fortissimo phase follows, similar to the first, but shortened and possibly less significant. The staunch, stomping four-four rhythm, which is emphasized rather than confused by the frequent syncopation, continues through the next "piano", restlessly beginning a new crescendo after four bars. Before the listener knows where he is, the mounting tension is lifted in a pianissimo anticlimax.

Flute, oboe and bassoon sound a thin, nocturnal tune, the pianist guides it onwards with quiet, brushing sweeps. A tambourine is all that keeps the metrum going. The theme is promptly inverted, sustained by a perhaps unusual piano part, where the right hand glisses alternately down the black and white keys while the left plays triplet semiquavers.

A sudden crescendo forces the music from pianissimo back to forte in only half a bar. The piano proceeds with dry (secco), staccato triplet runs, rejoined by the orchestra after a slightly surprising nine bars. In the end the soloist adopts a clear direction, climbing step by step and bursting into a ponderous fortissimo of full-fisted chords, sustained by tuba and horns in the bass. This is soon followed by another much shorter triplet run with rather less drive, that doesn't quite get to the top of the hill before falling back again. The original roles of piano and orchestra are reversed, as the music reaches a brief climax of the prancing kind found twice near the beginning of the movement. The volume decreases one more time, then rises with the chromatic ascent of chopping piano chords clad in arpeggios and acciaccaturas. There is a rush up to what for a moment looks to be the climax, cruel whole-tone harmonies in the piano and a whip-lashing orchestra. A crescendo hardly seems possible at this point.

It follows after three harrowing bars. Piano and orchestra swirl up into one blazing, diabolic cacophony in which the practised ear may detect the thumping opening theme of the movement. As in the climax of the Andantino, the piano plays "fff" and does its best to emphasize every single note.

Unable to bear it any longer, large sections of the orchestra resign after a further three bars, leaving the piano to play a unison trill reminiscent of the second movements lightning-flashes while the woodwind pants exhausted triplet chords. The music soon sobers up a little, down to a "piano", the piano breaks off for a moment. Not even now is the rhythmic beat interrupted. Just to make the point, the very last pianissimo "g", played by both piano and orchestra, is accentuated.

Allegro tempestoso

Five octaves above the intermezzo's end note, a "fortissimo" tirade pounces out of the sky, written in four-four-time but played in seven-eight ("one"-two-three-four-"one"-two-three etc.). After six enraged bars it settles down in the broader vicinity of middle C, the horns groaning about painedly somewhere below. Running up to an acid semitonal acciaccatura in both hands, the piano goes over into a sprint of octave-chords and single notes, jumping manically up and down the keyboard twice a bar. A relative tune is recognisable, quivering around the fifth ("D") at various altitudes. During a "piano" and staccato repetition of the theme, the strings and flutes rush up, bringing the music to the briefest of halts. A moment later the piano goes back to "forte" and the sprint sets off anew. It is repeated three more times in total, piano and orchestra both becoming ever louder, the leaps turning ever more implausible. In the end, the piano performs a stormy gallop of triads ("tempestoso"), the hands flying apart more or less symmetrically, while the strings throw in a frantic accompaniment of regular staccato eighths. The piano puts a momentary end to its own fury with a barely feasible manoeuvre, both hands jumping up three or four octaves simultaneously and "fortissimo" in the time of a semiquaver. Two bars of furtive string-rhythms later, the soloist crashes back into the scene, growing up out of a powerful tuba-throb. Tritoni and octaves walk up to the highest "F" on the keyboard and down again in quavers. After no more than a bar, a second boom follows, hardly quieter than the first, one-and-a-half bars later a quieter third and at last a fourth, mezzoforte. Moments later the decrescendo arrives at "piano" and enters into a more meditative dialogue between piano and orchestra. Once or twice the latter attempts –rather apathetically– to regain its former rhythm, before both make towards a steady walking pace.

The piano stands aside for eight bars while the strings, still "mf", embark on a new voyage. Still within the orchestra's metrum the soloist begins a solivagant cadenza, developing a wistful theme of a character similar to the first movement's piano opening theme. The volume alternately ranges about "mezzopiano" and "pianissimo", until after several almost revealing seconds of "forte" the pianist has the music retire into a "pianissimo" mystery in which it would, it appears, remain immersed indefinitely. Quiet redirection subsequently issues from the bassoons, which take up the wandering piano-theme, while the piano itself goes over into a "pp" semiquaver accompaniment. Over the next eight bars, the piano's motions circle ever higher with hardly a crescendo, then drop for a moment, summoning force.The music hardly grows any louder, only to a "piano", but it is emotionally so intense that it cannot possibly remain there. Oboe and clarinet, underlined softly by pizzicato strings, drift through a modification of the piano's cadenza-theme at half the original speed, while the piano itself whispers an octave above, playing the same tune twice in a row. The right hand plays in two voices, bedding the theme on a blanket of regular semiquavers, while the left sustains both with triplet quavers. Bassoons and flutes enter one after another as the piano goes into a more acute mezzoforte run, dense with repeated notes, octaves and fourths. With a sigh in the strings, and a second in the horns, the whole ensemble collapses into a first "forte" apparition of a combat of two equally yearning themes. For several bars the volume draws back, then erupts into a powerfully sad "fortissimo" with heavy, dissonant chords in the piano part.

The mood changes abruptly after six or seven bars of wayward decrescendo. As the soloist waits, pizzicato quavers hurry along a twisted version of the piano's cadenza theme in the bassoons, everything still "piano". The piano itself joins in with the pizzicato after eight bars. For a moment, things seem to calm down, then a sudden crescendo in the orchestral staccato pumps up a "fortissimo", illustrated by a wild, sliding piano part. The horns howl into the fray, trying in their own turn to convey one of the cadenza's motives. As the force dies down –first to "mf", then to "piano"– pianist and orchestra engage in a hectic conversation, until both land at a "pianissimo". The orchestra has the last word with two "ff" chords, the latter consisting of nothing but long-held "D"s.

This is where the second cadenza begins, of a much more liberal style than the first, alluding to the dialogue earlier in the movement. Prokofiev wishes it to be played "penseroso" (thoughtfully). After a while the piano goes into a vagrant, introspective crescendo of "D"-sharp and "F"-sharp minor chords, which leads nowhere in particular, ending ritardando. A second follows, seizing up in a harmonically lateral "D"-minor chord with the character of an isolated, lofty vantage point.

The third crescendo begins differently. An eerie, moonlit "pianissimo", ever repeating the same figure slightly changed, slowly grows and accelerates to a "ff sonoramente". Sextuplet semiquavers sail up and down, bearing along a variation on the leaping piano theme from near the beginning of the Allegro. The orchestra joins in after some time, reintroducing the piano's cadenza theme, while the soloist's part still flows across the octaves. The key regularly changes from A-minor to C-minor and back again, the music becomes ever broader and harder to play. Rhythm and tune then fall into an abrupt "piano", no less threatening than the previous "forte". Trundling chromaticism has the music roll up to a "fortissimo", the orchestra still proclaiming the originally wistful piano-theme. This is the only place outside the "andantino" where the piano exceeds the older range of seven octaves, jumping two octaves up to "B7" just one single time.A long diminuendo of gliding piano rushes brings the volume to a minimum "pp" (Prokofiev does not once use a "ppp" in the concerto's piano part). The soloist sinks into an ametric F-minor variation of the cadenza theme, floating on a cello and clarinet tremolando in a slowing andante, finally repeating the same "G" 15 soporific times.

A ferocious blast ("ff") starts off the reprise. The initial tirade returns. Everything is foreshortened. Several bars of the leaping piano theme immediately lead to a crazed abbreviation of the gallop, which the beginning of the Allegro thunders into. The soloist momentarily points to the pizzicato following the first cadenza, before the orchestra lets off a second blast. The leaping theme and the string's accompaniment of the tuba throb are combined, before the piano part of the latter runs madly up and down the keys several times. There is a slightly more extended repetition of the aforesaid "hectic conversation", seeming to put an end to the rage.

One more "subito" blast initiates a series of jumpy staccato crotchets. The pianist at last smashes down the same chord thrice before speeding up the keys in unison G minor. One after another double-basses, celli, the remaining string section, the brass and the woodwind join in, the music opens out into a screaming pandemonium. A barely audible "ff" septuplet of semiquaver chords and two rabid glissandi are thrown in by the soloist, before piano and bass section end the movement in five different "G"s.


The Prokofiev Page unanimously recommends the 1991 recording with Neeme Järvi, Horacio Gutiérrez and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Catalogue num.: Chandos 8889). [ [http://www.prokofiev.org The Prokofiev Page] ] André Previn's rendition with the London Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Philips 452588) is also recommended.


External links

* [http://www.prokofiev.org The Prokofiev Page] (including [http://www.prokofiev.org/catalog/index.html Catalog of Prokofiev works] )
* [http://www.naxos.com/mainsite/blurbs_reviews.asp?item_code=8.550565&catNum=550565&filetype=About%20this%20Recording&language=English Naxos.com]
*Amazon review No. 1 (Paik/Wit) [http://www.amazon.com/dp/customer-reviews/B0000013U0]
*Amazon review No. 2 (Gutierrez/Järvi) [http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A3Q5BTWVOZAO72?_encoding=UTF8]

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