Movement 1: Andantino – Allegretto
Movement 2: Scherzo: Vivace
Movement 3: Intermezzo: Allegro moderato
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro tempestoso
Prokofiev had been composing since childhood, and he himself admitted that some of the ideas of the concerto—perhaps the very first subject, heard on the piano over rocking triplets—came from the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century. But no matter what the provenance of this material or whether the catalyst was hearing Rachmaninov’s third concerto, there is no doubt but that, while the fate of this second concerto of Prokofiev mirrored in many ways the fate of Rachmaninov’s third (both were sidelined for decades), the resultant work is one of Prokofiev’s greatest scores, a brilliant concerto which has come into its own only in recent years.
The first movement is an astonishing achievement. Beginning with a quiet idea, setting the G minor tonality on clarinets and strings, the solo piano announces one of the composer’s most memorable ideas, an arching theme over rocking triplets. This is, in fact, the first of two themes which make up the first subject; the second is a rising scalic idea, also heard first on the piano. This material is repeated, although not slavishly, in a developmental counter-exposition to usher in the second subject, a faster, more balletic idea marked ‘con eleganza’—again given to the soloist. What is so utterly new is that the key of this second subject is the supertonic, A minor—a scheme which can surely not have been attempted before by any composer in a sonata-like movement. The juxtaposition of these adjacent tonalities sets up underlying tensions: the second subject is also treated to a counter-exposition and leads, where we may expect a development proper to begin, to the vast cadenza. In this secondary large development Prokofiev prepares for the recapitulation in masterly fashion: the tonal tension is further stretched by combining first and second subjects in virtuoso keyboard counterpoint with coruscating additional passagework so that, when the very opening quiet idea is nobly intoned against this by the brass to announce the re-entry of the orchestra in G minor, it is done against a timpani pedal on A! This tremendous moment is made more remarkable as A is the dominant of D—itself the dominant of G minor, in which key the movement ends with a quiet reference to the opening idea.
Prokofiev’s use of tonality was individual. It may have sprung from Scriabin, in that Prokofiev used it in the manner of synaesthesia, finding relationships between colour and sound. In this Prokofiev was not alone, certainly in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, but his was not a neurasthenic, sensual art: his music could be vigorous and resolute, as in the concluding movements of the second concerto.
Now follows a brilliantly virtuosic Scherzo, marked ‘Vivace’: a brief, yet hectic, 187-bar eruption in which the soloist plays throughout in octaves without a moment’s respite (music which clearly influenced, and not for the only time in Prokofiev’s output, the young William Walton). This Scherzo may be the first appearance of such a demand on a soloist—playing a movement from first note to last, without a single rest—in the history of concerto writing, yet tonally, being in D minor, the movement reinforces the home key of the work in traditional terms. In other ways there is an almost Mahlerian intensity to this music, and even more so in the Intermezzo, which inhabits a similar world to the Nachtstücken in Mahler’s seventh symphony at the same time as seeming to be, in its solo writing, a descendant of Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’, and additionally, in its grotesqueries, looking towards the ferocity of Prokofiev’s own Scythian Suite of 1914/5.
The Finale is echt Prokofiev, a power-house of brilliant ideas, transfigured by a haunting tune (from his childhood?), which are combined, after another glance at Rachmaninov’s third concerto, in virtuosic cascades to bring to a close a distinctive and magnificent concerto which could have been written by no other composer.
The concerto was first performed in Pavlovsk on 5 September 1913 with the composer as soloist. The reception was mixed, as Prokofiev recalled: ‘Half the audience hissed and the other half applauded.’ These views were echoed in the press.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1996