Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63

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            Prokofiev’s first violin concerto was composed in quite different circumstances than that of the second.   The first was begun in stormy 1917—the year of all of the cataclysmic events that initiated the Russian Revolution.  It was nevertheless a year of great artistic productivity for the young composer.  Among the compositions from that year familiar to audiences today are the Classical Symphony and the third piano concerto.  He had by then garnered a reputation as a dedicated modernist, a composer of considerable capacity to shock with his sarcasm, motoric rhythms, adventuresome melodies, and pungent harmonies.  Yet, the essentially lyric side of him was pronounced and innate.   So, the first violin concerto is distinguished for its lyricism—almost romantic in its expression.   The requisite virtuosity is there, of course.  But, all in all, it is representative of the most progressive side of him.

            The second violin concerto dates from some seventeen or eighteen years later, in much changed circumstances.  And yet, surprisingly, the two works bear some degree of resemblance.  By 1935 Prokofiev had been in contact with representatives of the Soviet government, which was trying to entice him back home with promises of nice accommodations, commissions, and a prestigious position in the world of Soviet music.   To tell the truth, since the early nineteen thirties he had rethought his fundamental style of composing, and had come to the conclusion that a more direct, appealing, and approachable style would bring him closer to his audiences.  Voilà!   Just what the Soviet artistic watchdogs had decreed as suitable for the proletariat:  Socialist Realism!  Music for the average guy.  The two views were totally congruent, so the composer’s move back to the USSR was an easy one.  The concerto was Prokofiev’s last composition before that removal, and like the first concerto, there is considerable appealing lyricism in the second work.   Audiences loved them both, with the second enjoying an immediate success.

It was composed for the French violinist, Robert Soëtens, for whom he had written a previous composition, and he had composed it here and there as the two toured together just before the composer’s trip home.  At the time Prokofiev was also working on the ballet, Romeo and Juliet, having finished his music for the film, Lieutenant Kije the year before.  So, it should not come as any surprise that the ingratiating—almost romantic—tunefulness and lyricism of both works should be found in the second violin concerto.

            The first movement begins with a dark, simple five-note theme, played by the soloist alone, in the low, rich register of the violin.  Prokofiev had made reference to his goal of achieving a “new simplicity” in his style, and this is surely it.  After the theme is extended a bit, the lower strings take it up.  After some spritely passagework, the second theme appears, just as lyrical as the first, but now, of course, in a major key, replete with the composer’s familiar quick tonal shifts.  If you miss it, the horn takes it up right away, followed soon by the oboe.   These two attractive ideas are the basis of the movement, along with the expected virtuoso figurations and a vigorous development.  But, it never gets too stormy, and a somewhat ominous ending is signaled by the horns and pizzicato strings.

            If the first movement may be said to be lyrical, the second is absolutely romantic—where is the sardonic Prokofiev that we knew so well?  Accompanied by gentle pizzicato strings and soft woodwind chords, the soloist soars above them.   Variations follow, with other material contributed by the woodwinds.   A quicker tempo and busy figurations in the solo violin provide contrast in the movement’s central sections, and the woodwinds and brass announce the return of the opening.   After recapping the way he began the movement, Prokofiev surprises us by turning the gentle ending upside down:  This time, the soloist provides the soft pizzicatos, while the orchestra gets the chance to explore the appealing, sustained “romantic” tune.  Everything ends pensively, with the low strings having the last word. 

            The last movement is a vigorous dance, but not that fast, and not that loud.   And here, as in the whole concerto, Prokofiev makes creative use of the small battery of percussion (played by one person), which includes the very Spanish castanets.  Perhaps that the concerto’s première was intended for Madrid was influential, here, but the Spanish influence is abstract, at best.  Nevertheless, there is a swagger to the whole, aided by the syncopations and string effects that are redolent of so many concert works that evoke Spain.   This attractive work, in so many surprising ways, is yet again eloquent testimony against the foolish temptation to “pigeon hole” the musical style of superb composers.  It may have been written with his removal back to the USSR close at hand, but it is in no wise an example of “Soviet Realism”--with the attendant simplicities and contortions of that sad totalitarian art.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan