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Piano Concerto No.2 in G Minor Op.16

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

The Second Concerto, in G minor, was written in 1912-1913, and Prokofiev himself played the solo part in the première at Pavlovsk on 5 September 1913. The audience hated it. According to the press reports, the listeners were left ‘frozen with fright, hair standing on end’, and there was a frenzied exodus from the hall. Not unnaturally, the young composer-pianist refrained for a while from risking another performance. Over the next few years he concentrated instead on sketching out materials for his Third Concerto, completed in 1921. In the meantime came the Revolution. In May 1918 Prokofiev left for the United States – he was not to revisit his homeland for nearly ten years – and in the course of these general and personal vicissitudes the score of the Second Piano concerto was lost. What we know today under the title is the reconstruction Prokofiev made from memory in 1923, when he had returned to Europe. The composer was again the soloist in the première of the new version, given at a Koussevitzky concert in Paris on 8 May 1924. Now, a decade later and in a very different, self-consciously avant-garde milieu, the same work that had been rejected in Pavlovsk for its ‘futuristic’ qualities was derided instead as old hat. How far are the 1913 and 1923 versions in fact ‘the same work’? It’s reasonable to assume that a 32 year old composer of worldwide experience would not, even if the limitations of memory permitted it, recreate the work of a 22-year old conservatoire student without some fairly drastic rethinking. And when we consider the actual fabric of the Second Concerto, the music’s sheer concentration of thought and cohesion of expressive stance seem to show a striking advance over the Third Concerto, if not in charm, then certainly in organising power and felicity of taste. There is a kind of classical purity in the language that in no way diminishes but rather reinforces the work’s dark eloquence and the effect of its extraordinary virtuoso writing. The soloist makes his appearance early, with a triplet rhythm in the left hand supporting a wide-ranging theme marked narrante (in narrative style). But before this solo entry quiet pizzicato strings, supported by clarinets, have already introduced another equally important theme in octaves. The relationship of these elements is worked out with great resource and intriguing instrumental shifts throughout the first movement’s opening Andantino section, and extends its influence into the central Allegretto also. Then, after a cadenza that makes enormous demands on the soloist’s technique, the Andantino returns with an awesome statement of the pizzicato them, proclaimed fortissimo by the full brass while the soloist and the rest of the orchestra busy themselves with the other material. Altogether this first movement stands as one of Prokofiev’s subtlest and most satisfying structures, and its scale and complexity meet the ideal foil in the shape of the fast, furious and, essentially simple scherzo that follows. A dazzling moto perpetuo of rare single-mindedness, it makes its point and then just stops. Simple again, though richer in emotional shadings, is the quintessentially Prokofievian intermezzo. It would not be surprising, in view of the music’s insistent Russianness, to discover that this movement owed much to the 1923 revision. For it was the cultural rootlessness of Prokofiev’s years abroad that intensified his nostalgia for the mother country, and indeed took him back there as a permanent resident for the last 18 years of his life. The dynamic yet intermittently brooding finale cogently draws together the varied atmospheres of the first three movements. In this broadly assertive structure the dark lyricism of the Andantino is reconciled with the hell-for-leather quality of the scherzo and the Russianness of the intermezzo. The thematic cross-references are not often literally explicit, but they carry the stamp of emotional relevance, which is a more important unifying factor than any mere correspondence of melodic shapes.

© Phillips

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