Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 11, 1953, Erich Leinsdorf conducting, with Jorge Bolet, soloist
About this Piece
On a summer evening in 1912, Sergei Prokofiev, a gangling 20-year-old stepped onto a Moscow stage to jolt the world with his First Piano Concerto. It was greeted with hisses, boos, and catcalls by the majority, against wild cheering from a vocal minority. A year later, the composer-pianist introduced his Second Piano Concerto in the resort town of Pavlovsk, near Saint Petersburg.
The critic of the Saint Petersburg Journal wrote of the event: “Prokofiev, a youth with the face of a high school student, takes his seat at the piano and appears to be either dusting the keys or trying out the notes to see which are high and which low... The audience does not know what to make of it. Indignant murmurs are heard. One couple rises and moves toward the exit. Others leave their seats... The young man concludes his concerto with a mercilessly dissonant combination of sounds from the brass. The scandal in the audience is full-blown. The majority of them are hissing. Another, smaller group, the progressives, are in ecstasy: ‘A work of genius! How innovative! What spirit and originality’.”
If the First Concerto was an assault, a tightly-controlled, continual shower of sparks, the Second is at once more discursive, darker, on a grander scale—and even more virtuosic. The “football touch,” as Prokofiev’s Soviet-era biographer Israel Nestyev aptly put it, has been tempered by a richer piano sonority, and there is a good deal more for the orchestra to do, although that is hardly apparent at the outset, what with the spotlighting of the solo piano for much of the first part of the opening movement, with its expansive, lushly melancholy principal theme and a vast, knuckle-busting cadenza. “But the concerto is also bursting with music for the machine age,” in the words of Harlow Robinson, one of our foremost chroniclers of Soviet-era music, “particularly in the second movement ... an infectiously optimistic episode of perpetual motion that moves with the relentless force and fluidity of a speeding locomotive.”
The third movement’s grotesque, crunching tread—like the lumbering of some immense prehistoric beast—is a harbinger of Prokofiev’s juggernaut Scythian Suite, while the finale, a mixture of crush and dash, projects an updated version of Lisztian bravura, with a misty contrasting episode, sounding rather like Ravel, making an accidental incursion into this brutal world.
It should be noted that the Second Concerto known to us may not be precisely what the audience heard in 1913, but rather a “reconstruction” Prokofiev made in 1923. Presumably, he used most of the same material as in the original, unpublished orchestral score, which was destroyed in a fire; he reintroduced the Second Concerto in 1924 at one of the legendary Koussevitzky concerts in Paris. —Herbert Glass