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Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Charles Dutoit, conductor/Yuja Wang, piano, plays Prokofiev Feb. 19 - 21, 2009
© Richard Freed
In his ten years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory Prokofiev studied piano and conducting as well as composition, and upon his graduation, in 1914, he won the Rubinstein Prize, as pianist, with a performance of his own First Concerto. It was a daring choice on his part, as that work had ignited a good deal of controversy when he introduced it in Moscow two years earlier, but he chose it as his graduation piece, he recalled later, because his Second Concerto, which had its premiere the previous year, "would have sounded too outlandish within the Conservatory walls." The First—terse, concentrated, and by today's standards rather ingratiating—proved outlandish enough: Alexander Glazunov, who as director of the Conservatory had encouraged the young Prokofiev to enroll there and subsequently lavished praise upon him for his early compositions, stalked out of the hall during the performance that won his protégé the institution's highest award for a student pianist.

In pursuing the Rubinstein Prize, Prokofiev showed good judgment in performing his First Concerto instead of his more recent one. He composed the Second in 1912 and 1913, and introduced it on September 5 of the latter year at Pavlovsk, in the series of summer park concerts in which Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss had conducted their own works a few decades earlier. This work is still more aggressive that its predecessor, as well as more elaborate in respect to structure and dimensions. The First takes barely a quarter-hour to perform, and is nominally in a single movement, in the style of a Konzertstück, while the Second is twice as long and in four movements. Glazunov's reaction to the First in 1914 was mild compared with the general response to the Second the previous year. A newspaper review reported that Prokofiev seemed to be "either dusting the keys or trying out the notes at the beginning of the Concerto," and that by the end the audience was "scandalized, the majority hissed." There was a general exodus of the hall, with shouted protests—"Such music is enough to drive you crazy!" "The devil with such futuristic stuff!"—but the 22-year-old Prokofiev evidently found all this more amusing than offensive; as the hall emptied he bowed ("with an air of mockery") and played an encore. The eminent music-historian and critic Vyacheslav Karatygin, whose own review described those in attendance as "frozen with fright, hair standing on end," was perhaps the only member of the audience perceptive enough to predict that those who were hissing Prokofiev then would be applauding him ten years later.

But ten years later—or more nearly eleven—it was a different audience, and the Concerto did not fare much better, because by then it was not "futuristic" enough. After relocating in the West and introducing his Third Concerto in Chicago in 1921, Prokofiev settled in Paris and had an opportunity to perform the Second there in the concert series of the famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky. The revised version prepared in Paris and the Bavarian town of Ettal in 1923 was not a matter of second thoughts, but simply a reconstructive effort: the score had been lost in Russia during the 1917 Revolution, and Prokofiev tried to write it out from memory—with, of course, the tightening and polishing inevitably dictated by the additional years' experience. This version, the only one to achieve publication, was introduced in Paris on May 8, 1924; later that year Koussevitzky began his 25-year tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, during which he conspicuously championed Prokofiev's music.

In 1924 the Parisians, in the throes of avant-garde fever, were not expecting a big, romantic work in the Liszt/Rachmaninoff tradition from the composer of the Scythian Suite, and, aware of the Concerto's background, they derided Prokofiev for warming up a leftover instead of offering them something really new. For a half-century the Second Concerto remained among the least performed of Prokofiev's major works; it was not until after his death that pianists began to take another look at it, and not till the 1970s that it achieved repertory status.

While this work is hardly unique among concertos in being cast in four movements instead of three, it is very nearly so in opening with a long slow movement, specifically an expansive Andantino which encapsulates an Allegretto. If echoes of Rachmaninoff seem to be heard here, intimations of Stravinsky may be found in the second movement, a scherzo in the form of a pithy, motoric perpetuum mobile, without a trio.

Prokofiev's own identity, of course, is never in question, and is brilliantly reasserted in the Intermezzo. Despite the bland implications of this title, the movement so headed is brittle and corrosive in character, typical in that respect of the works Prokofiev was creating in various forms during the early part of his sojourn in the West. The finale, as its heading Allegro tempestoso seems to promise, is a suitably rousing climax to what has gone before, genuinely symphonic in its proportions, yet with ample display opportunities for the soloist, who is given an especially assertive cadenza.