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Violin Concerto No 2 is perhaps the best-known and loved of Prokofiev’s violin works. Composed in 1935, just before Prokofiev ended his 17 years of self-imposed exile from post-revolutionary Russia, it is one of his finest essays in the style of ‘new simplicity’ he had been cultivating from the early 1930s. Fearing that his inspiration was drying up after his flirtation with the modish styles of such composers as Honegger, Hindemith and above all Stravinsky, Prokofiev had consciously clarified his harmonic language and given primacy to his melodic invention. The cheeky tunefulness of Lieutenant Kizhe was one striking result, and it was a year after arranging a suite from this film score that Prokofiev composed his Second Concerto for the French-Belgian violinist Robert Soetens. Soetens had taken part in the premiere of Prokofiev’s Sonata for two violins in 1932, partnering Samuel Dushkin who had just received a Violin Concerto from Stravinsky. It therefore seemed appropriate that Soetens should receive a concerto from Stravinsky’s composing rival, who gave him a year’s exclusive right to perform the work.
In contrast to the lush orchestral forces of Concerto No 1, the Second is scored with Classical restraint: just a pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, as well as strings (a line-up, save for the percussion, identical to that of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony). Even the ‘exotic’ instruments which reside in the percussion department are ones Mozart might have recognised, if not within a symphonic score: side drum, triangle, castanets (possibly in salutation to its projected Madrid premiere), and—a key player in this score—bass drum. The soloist launches the Concerto with an unaccompanied, brooding melody, out of which much of the movement’s material is to be woven. This eventually elicits a stark reply from muted violas and basses playing in unison and a gradual build up of entries from the rest of the orchestra, though textures remain lean and almost severely contrapuntal until the arrival of the soloist’s rich-toned, lyrical second theme, echoed by horns. This offers only temporary respite, though, as the development section becomes increasingly hectic, the soloist’s rapidly weaving passages suggesting fearful flight, and the movement finally ends with several decisive cadences underscored by the thunk of the bass drum like so many closing doors. With the slow movement comes one of Prokofiev’s most celebrated long-arching melodies, cast by the soloist initially over a simple arpeggio accompaniment played, with almost imbecilic-sounding precision, by pizzicato strings and staccato clarinet. The finale starts as a vigorous waltz, but the bass drum, whose sinister presence has been felt in the first movement, increasingly takes charge, its impatient pounding dislocating the waltz rhythm and harrying the soloist to the concerto’s final sardonic cadence.
It should be said that, although Prokofiev was about to return to Russia and so enter the horrors of Stalin’s Terror, it seems likely that the Concerto’s ambivalent emotional character rather reflected Prokofiev’s feelings about the fraught condition of Western Europe, ravaged by economic depression and with its democracies apparently bankrupt against a rising tide of fascism. With a wife and two young sons to support, he believed that by returning to Russia he was stabilising his income; as he reported, in all innocence, to his friend Vernon Duke, 'Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I compose before the ink is dry, and performs every note that comes from my pen is all right with me.'
Prokofiev, of course, had had a number of successes in the West, among them the Five Melodies. These were composed in their original form early in 1921 when Prokofiev was touring California. In these hauntingly beautiful pieces, originally intended as vocalises for the Russian mezzo-soprano and one time lover of Rachmaninov, Nina Koshetz, one senses his relish of the 'marvellous weather and smiling people' he had encountered, touched with a certain wistfulness as he perhaps recalled his then lost homeland. Yet it was only when the Melodies were arranged in 1925 for the violin’s hyper-expressive powers that their full poignant lyricism was revealed. These arrangements were made with the assistance of the Polish violinist, Paul Kochanski, a friend and regular performing partner of Szymanowski, whose playing in pre-Revolutionary Russia had so inspired Prokofiev when he composed his enchantingly lyrical First Violin Concerto. Reunited in America, Prokofiev and Kochanski became firm friends, and Prokofiev dedicated three of the Five Melodies—the first, third and fourth—to Kochanski. The second piece is dedicated to another violinist, Cecilia Hansen, wife of one of Prokofiev’s pianist friends from his days at the St Petersburg Conservatory; and the last is dedicated to Szigeti, who did so much to champion Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, securing its first recording (with Beecham conducting) even against the resistance of the directors of Columbia Records to whom he was contracted.
Joseph Swensen writes:
The Five Melodies had been among my favourite works by Prokofiev for many years before I chose to orchestrate them. The original accompaniment is among the most colourful of the composer’s works for the piano and it was precisely the element of colour which intrigued me most in my orchestration. Limiting myself to strings, and to only the notes of Prokofiev’s original piano part, my intention was that this version be but a subtle evolution of Prokofiev’s original. Use of harmonics, pizzicato, and blurring effects are inspired by what a truly great pianist may attempt on his instrument, but only allude to. The obvious influence of Debussy in Prokofiev’s original has resulted in an orchestral sound which seems equally indebted to the great French composer.”
Composed almost concurrently with the First Violin Concerto in 1917 was Prokofiev’s First Symphony—effectively, as one Moscow professor has impishly suggested, his belated graduation-style exercise to write an orthodox ‘Classical’ symphony. Prokofiev had graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1914, where he had studied conducting under Nikolay Tcherepnin. Tcherepnin had a particular enthusiasm for such late eighteenth-century Classical composers as Mozart and Haydn—this at a time when Haydn in particular was scarcely performed. During his conducting classes, Tcherepnin would sit by Prokofiev to point out felicities in their scoring—'Now listen to that delightful little bassoon there!' Prokofiev, at that time an enthusiast for Skriabin’s febrile harmonies, found the Classical composers’ clean-cut, orderly style and economical yet piquant orchestration a revelation. Although it seems an early version of the third movement Gavotte was composed before his graduation, it was only after the February Revolution of 1917 that he finally completed his Symphony No 1. This was partly as an exercise in writing music away from the piano to try to discover 'more transparent orchestral colours'. Prokofiev not only succeeded in this, but discovered a balletic grace quite unlike his galumphing first attempt at ballet, Ala i Lolli, abandoned in 1915. He himself named his symphony ‘Classical’ in order 'to tease the geese'. Indeed, it lives up to its name with a conventional four-movement symphonic scheme and its textbook-style sonata form for the first movement, with clearly punctuated exposition and development sections, then recapitulation. Prokofiev spices these conventions with individual touches of his own, playing harmonic sleights of hand with sudden shifts into alien keys—like the unnatural perspectives of an Escher drawing—and replacing the usual minuet and trio third movement with his favoured gavotte (its trio section given a pastoral flavour by its musette-style bass drone). However it is the music’s freshness, succinctness and unforced joie de vivre which has made Prokofiev’s affectionate pastiche of Haydn’s manner an enduring favourite.
Daniel Jaffé © 2005