Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2
Around the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Sergei Prokofiev left the Soviet Union and lived abroad for the next 18 years or so. He returned in 1927 an outsider, and was regarded as a foreigner by the regime whilst on tour of the USSR. His eventual permanent return to the USSR in 1936 was a major artistic coup for the Soviet regime and he was unable to obtain promises of privileges before taking this step. When the Great Patriotic War broke out between (1941-45) this put a clear end to the possibility of Prokofiev doing more foreign tours, and he never left the Soviet Union after 1938.
Composed in 1935, Prokofiev gave his own account of how he came to write the Second Violin Concerto in his Autobiography:
“In 1935 a group of admirers of the French violinist Robert Soëtans asked me to write a violin concerto for him, giving him exclusive rights to perform it for one year. I readily agreed since I had been intending to write something for the violin at that time and had accumulated some material. As in the case of preceding concertos, I began by searching for an original title for the piece, such as ‘Concert Sonata for Violin & Orchestra’, but finally returned to the simplest solution: Concerto No. 2. Nevertheless, I wanted it to be altogether different from No. 1 both as to music and style.
The variety of places in which that concerto was written is a reflection of the nomadic concert-tour existence I led at that time; the principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid in December 1935. This was part of an extremely interesting concert tour which I made together with Soëtans through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Besides my own compositions, we played Debussy and Beethoven.”
Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto represented what is believed to have been the future direction for USSR music, and was considered an ideal work for the composer to be armed with upon his return to the Soviet Union.
I. Allegro Moderato
Prokofiev said many times that he wanted this second concerto to be different from his first, and it certainly is. Unlike the wistful opening of the first, the second opens with a bare melody for the solo violin, which emerges from a dark Russian spring. Just as you might be getting comfortable with the opening, Prokofiev writes in stark dissonances between the orchestra and soloist, creating a tumultuous atmosphere.
The quick passages from the violin slow down into an unmistakably Romantic section, with its rich atmosphere and deep harmonies. The opening movement is in a loose sonata form due to the recurring themes, however the varying textures and quick changes makes it difficult to pin down to a formal structure.
II. Andante assai
The middle movement marked Andante assai is one of Prokofiev’s most popular slow movements ever. The pizzicato accompaniment plays unrelenting arpeggios throughout, which gives a sense of consistency for the soloist. Prokofiev stamps his mark on this movement with the shifting textures within the orchestra and the seamless transitions between wholly unrelated tonalities.
The syncopated long solo violin lines are the highlight throughout, however the dialogues created with other instruments within the orchestra highlight this even further. The upper winds add embellishments throughout, creating a sense of sweetness within the music.
III. Allegro ben marcato
The energy-filled finale movement is rough in style due to the way the soloist is asked to perform. Its recurring rondo theme becomes more and more insistent each time it returns, making it a powerful melodic tool within the movement. Prokofiev’s use of varied percussion parts is also pertinent in this movement, with castanets and a bold bass drum leading the way (the castanets are said to be added due to the work’s premiere in Madrid).
The bass drum inexorably leads us to the work’s dynamic ending, with the music never ceasing to reach its final destination. The final flourish from the soloist and the orchestra is thrilling and the work ends abruptly.
Prokofiev wrote to his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Miaskovsky from Morocco two days after the premiere:
“The premiere of the Violin Concerto took place in Madrid on 1st December. It gave me great pleasure, since it all sounded even better than I thought when I was orchestrating it, wilting from the heat in stuffy Baku. It seems the concerto is a success. The public reception was also excellent – the music somehow immediately reached the audience. Now I still plan to look it over again and to add a few details here and there.”
It is no wonder many virtuoso violinists want to attempt this work after Soëtans’ exclusive rights had expired after twelve months. The approachable score, interesting orchestrations and stark differences from the first concerto make the second one of Prokofiev’s most intriguing solo works.