Piano Concerto No. 2 (Prokofiev)

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Sergei Prokofiev set to work on his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, in 1912 and completed it the next year. But that version of the concerto is lost; the score was destroyed in a fire following the Russian Revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed the work in 1923, two years after finishing his Piano Concerto No. 3, and declared it to be "so completely rewritten that it might almost be considered [Piano Concerto] No. 4." Indeed its orchestration has features that clearly postdate the 1921 concerto. Performing as soloist, Prokofiev premiered this "No. 2" in Paris on 8 May 1924 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. It is dedicated to the memory of Maximilian Schmidthof, a friend of Prokofiev's at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory who had killed himself in 1913.

Movements and scoring[edit]

The work is scored for piano solo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine and strings. It consists of four movements lasting some twenty-nine to thirty-seven minutes.

  1. AndantinoAllegretto (10–12 minutes)
  2. Scherzo: Vivace (2–3 minutes)
  3. Intermezzo: Allegro moderato (6–8 minutes)
  4. Finale: Allegro tempestoso (10–11 minutes)

Premiere and reception[edit]

The work is dedicated to the memory of Maximilian Schmidthof, a friend of Prokofiev's at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, who had committed suicide in April 1913[1] after having written a farewell letter to Prokofiev.[2] Prokofiev premiered the work that same year, performing the solo piano part, on August 23 at Pavlovsk.[3] Most of the audience reacted intensely. The concerto's wild temperament left a positive impression on some of the listeners, whereas others were opposed to the jarring and modernistic sound ("To hell with this futurist music!" "What is he doing, making fun of us?" "The cats on the roof make better music!").[4][5]

When the original orchestral score was destroyed in a fire following the Russian Revolution,[6] Prokofiev reconstructed and considerably revised the concerto in 1923; in the process, he made the concerto, in his own words, "less foursquare" and "slightly more complex in its contrapuntal fabric."[6] The finished result, Prokofiev felt, was "so completely rewritten that it might almost be considered [Concerto] No. 4."[1] (Piano Concerto No. 3 had premiered in 1921). He premiered this revised version of the concerto in Paris on May 8, 1924 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting.[1]

It remains one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Prokofiev biographer David Nice noted in 2011, "A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly. Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as virtuoso had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it with Ansermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers."[7]


The first and last movements are each around twelve minutes long and constitute some of the most dramatic music in all of Prokofiev's piano concertos. They both contain long and developed cadenzas with the first movement's cadenza alone taking up almost the entire last half of the movement.


The first movement opens quietly with strings and clarinet playing a two-bar staccato theme which, Prokofiev biographer Daniel Jaffé suggests, "sounds almost like a ground bass passacaglia theme, that musical symbol of implacable fate".[8] The piano takes over, constructing over a left hand accompaniment of breathing undulation a G minor narrante theme which, in the words of Soviet biographer Israel Nestyev, "suggests a quiet, serious tale in the vein of a romantic legend".[9] This opening theme contains a second idea,[10] a rising scalic theme; as Robert Layton observes, when it is later taken up by unison strings as "a broad singing melody, one feels that the example of Rachmaninov has not gone altogether unheeded".[11]

A brief forte, backed by the orchestra, leads to a third, expansive, walking theme performed again by the solo pianist; Layton notes that this "looks forward to its counterpart in the Third Piano Concerto: there is no mistaking its slightly flippant character".[11] The recapitulation section is in effect carried entirely by the soloist's notoriously taxing five-minute cadenza, one of the longer and more difficult cadenze in the classical piano repertoire, taking the listener all the way to the movement's climax. Noted in two staves, the piano plays a reprise of its own opening theme. A third staff, which requires the pianist to perform large jumps with both hands frequently, contains the motif from the earlier orchestral accompaniment.

The accumulated charge is eventually released in a premature climax (G minor), marked fff and colossale, which consists of oscillating triplet semiquaver runs across the upper four octaves of the piano, kept in rhythm by a leaping left-hand crotchet accompaniment. Prokofiev himself describes this as one of the hardest places in the concerto.[12]

\new GrandStaff <<
	\new Staff \relative c' {
		\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
		\tempo 4 = 108
		fis'32 gis a b \ottava #1
		cis d e fis
		gis a b c d e fis gis
		a-> fis d a \ottava #0
		fis d a d
		fis eis, fis gis a b cis d
	\new Staff \relative c' {
		\slashedGrace <fis fis'>8 <fis a d fis>2 \ottava #1
		a''4 \ottava #0
	\new Staff \relative {
		\clef bass
		<e,, e'>16-. fis'-. a-. d32\( fis
		d16-.\) fis-.
		\clef treble
		d'32\( e fis gis
		a16->\) d-. a-. gis-.
		fis-> d-. a-. f-.

The last bars before the absolute climax are marked tumultuoso and reach supreme discord as C sharp minor collides with D minor.

As both hands move apart, to embrace the piano fff in D minor, an accent on every note, the orchestra announces its return, strings and timpani swelling furiously from p to ff. The listener is exposed to the apocalyptic blare of several horns, trombones, trumpets and tuba, which, as Jaffé describes it, "balefully [play] the opening 'fate' theme fortissimo",[8] while piano, flutes and strings still shriek in unison up and down the higher ranges. Two cymbal crashes end the cataclysm in G minor.

A decrescendo brings the music back to an almost spooky piano in which the piano timidly puts forth the second narrante theme, echoes its last notes, repeats it pianissimo, ever fading. Pizzicato strings point several more times to the opening theme, the significance of which has now been revealed.

Scherzo: Vivace[edit]

The scherzo is of an exceptionally strict form considering the piano part. The right and left hand play a stubborn unison, almost 1500 semiquavers each, literally without a moment's pause: Robert Layton describes the soloist in this movement being like "some virtuoso footballer who retains the initiative while the opposing team (the orchestra) all charge after him".[11] At around ten notes a second and with hardly any variations in speed, this movement lasts circa two-and-a-half minutes and is an unusual concentration challenge to the pianist. It displays the motor line of the five "lines" (characters) Prokofiev describes in his own music. (Other such pieces include Toccata in D minor and the last movement of Piano Sonata No. 7.) One fleeting motif, to make a major appearance in the final movement, appears (fig. 39 in the score) in the cellos' part – "a chromatically inflected triplet plus quaver, played twice before tailing off".[8] Unlike the other three movements, it is mainly in D minor.

Intermezzo: Allegro moderato[edit]

Instead of a lyrical slow movement which might have been expected after a scherzo (cf Brahms's Second Piano Concerto), Prokofiev provides a fast-paced, menacing Intermezzo.[11] Layton characterises this movement as "in some ways the most highly characterized of all four movements, with its flashes of sardonic wit and forward-looking harmonies".[11]

The movement starts with a heavy-footed walking bass theme – directed to be played heavily (pesante) and fortissimo. The music has returned to G minor. Strings, bassoon, tuba, timpani and gran cassa (bass drum) march along with moody determination. Trombones sharply pronounce a D, followed by tuba and oboe in a sudden diminuendo. For several bars, the orchestra issues ever waning threats, at the same time making inexorably for the tonic, at which point the piano enters and the music immediately gains force. The march of the introduction continues as the piano modulates into new harmonic territory. There is one moment of respite from this "sarcastically grotesque procession" with the single appearance of "an introverted theme of numbed lyricism".[8] After a restatement of the earlier material, the music ventures into a new lyrical theme in D minor, marked pp and dolce, un poco scherzando. The piano and flutes gracefully glide up and down the upper octaves. Then, the piano repeats the theme by itself, humorous and secco, before being joined by the orchestra. The tension builds and the music ascends until it reaches a climax, when the opening theme returns with baleful trombones and crashing chords at the top of the piano. The woodwinds bring the intensity back down and the movement ends quietly with a final stroke of wit.

Finale: Allegro tempestoso[edit]

Five octaves above the intermezzo's end note, a fortissimo tirade pounces out of the sky, written in 4
but with a repeating pattern seven quavers long (accented as 4+3). After six bars it settles down in the vicinity of middle C. Running up to an acid semitonal acciaccatura in both hands, the piano goes over into a sprint of octave-chords and single notes, jumping manically up and down the keyboard twice a bar. An audible theme is picked out, and during a piano and staccato repetition of the theme, the strings and flutes rush up, bringing the music to the briefest of halts. A moment later the piano goes back to forte and the sprint sets off anew. It is repeated three more times in total before the piano performs a stormy gallop of triads (tempestoso), the hands flying apart more or less symmetrically, while the strings throw in a frantic accompaniment of regular staccato eighths. The piano puts a momentary end to its own fury with a barely feasible manoeuvre, both hands jumping up three or four octaves simultaneously and fortissimo in the time of a semiquaver. But by then the sprint has transformed into a "fearful pursuit with an obsessively repeated triplet motif [first heard fleetingly in the Scherzo movement] overshadowed by the baleful roars of tuba and trombones".[8] Only moments later, the orchestra has reached a halt and the piano, unaccompanied, plays soft but dissonant chords which, Jaffé suggests, are "reminiscent of the bell-like chords which open the final piece in Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19" which were composed in homage to Mahler shortly after his death. (Jaffé points out that Prokofiev had introduced Schoenberg's music to Russia by playing the Op. 11 pieces, and suggests that Prokofiev may have known and been inspired by Schoenberg's Op. 19 to use a similar bell motif to commemorate Schmidthof.)[8]

The piano stands aside for eight bars while the strings, still mf, embark on a new episode. The soloist then plays a wistful theme in D minor similar in character to the first movement's piano opening theme, characterised by Jaffé as a "lullaby" while noting (as does Nestyev)[13] its affinity to Mussorgsky. The bassoons take up the wandering piano-theme, while the piano itself goes over into a pp semiquaver accompaniment. The music eventually winds down, with "a despondent-sounding version of the lullaby theme on bassoon abruptly cut off by a sharply articulated and very final sounding cadence from the orchestra".[8] But, as Jaffé notes, "The pianist won't let things rest... but hammers out the 'pursuit' theme", so initiating "not so much a cadenza... but a post-cadential meditation on the 'bell' chords".[8] The orchestra joins in after some time, reintroducing the piano's "lullaby" theme, while the soloist's part still flows across the octaves. The key regularly changes from A minor to C minor and back again, the music becomes ever broader and harder to play. Rhythm and tune then fall into an abrupt piano, no less threatening than the previous forte. Trundling chromaticism has the music roll up to a fortissimo, the orchestra still proclaiming the originally wistful piano-theme. This is the only place outside the andantino where the piano exceeds the older range of seven octaves, jumping two octaves up to B7 just one single time.

A long diminuendo of gliding piano rushes brings the volume to a minimum pp (Prokofiev does not once use a ppp in the concerto's piano part). Then a ferocious blast (ff) from the orchestra starts off the ferocious reprise.


The first recording of the concerto was made in November 1953 and released the next year on Remington Records: R-199-182. The pianist was Jorge Bolet, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was led by Thor Johnson, and Laszlo Halasz and Don Gabor supervised. Bolet's performance set a standard by which several later recordings were judged: Shura Cherkassky and Herbert Menges (HMV mono); Nicole Henriot and Charles Munch (with a bad cut in the first movement; RCA stereo); and Malcolm Frager and René Leibowitz (also RCA stereo). Tedd Joselson, then 19 years old, launched his recording career with this work in a 1973 partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy (again on RCA).


Year Pianist Orchestra Conductor Mvt 1 Mvt 2 Mvt 3 Mvt 4 Label Catalog
1953 Bolet Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Johnson 10:42 2:25 5:50 11:03 Remington R-199-182
1954 live Scarpini New York Philharmonic Mitropoulos 11:29 2:33 6:07 11:43 Music & Arts CD-1214
1955 Cherkassky Philharmonia Orchestra Menges 10:52 2:34 5:38 11:03 HMV ALP 1349
1957 Henriot Boston Symphony Orchestra
*omits orchestra's exposition
Munch 9:31* 2:35 5:39 11:50 RCA LM-2197
1958 live Ashkenazy New York Philharmonic Bernstein 11:51 2:32 5:59 10:36 NYPO Special Editions NYP 2003
1959 Zak USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra Sanderling 11:11 2:33 7:09 10:24 Апрелевский Завод (Aprelevsky Zavod) ГОСТ 5289-56
1960 Frager Paris Conservatoire Orchestra Leibowitz 10:44 2:44 6:06 10:55 RCA LSC-2465
1961 live Ashkenazy USSR State Symphony Orchestra Rozhdestvensky 11:31 2:40 6:42 10:36 Brilliant Classics 9098-30
1961 Wührer Südwestfunk Orchester Baden-Baden Gielen 13:00 3:01 7:48 13:10 Vox PL 12.100
1963 Baloghová Czech Philharmonic Ančerl 12:14 2:45 7:22 11:19 Supraphon SUA ST 50551
1965 Browning Boston S.O. Leinsdorf 10:49 2:36 6:51 11:03 RCA LSC-2897
1969 Rösel Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra Bongartz 11:17 2:29 7:04 10:44 Edel CCC 01072
1972 Bolet Nürnberger Symphoniker Cox 10:58 2:28 6:05 11:07 Genesis GCD-104
1972 Tacchino Orchestre de Radio Luxembourg de Froment 10:56 2:49 6:07 10:46 Candide CE 31075
1973 Joselson Philadelphia Orchestra Ormandy 12:08 2:30 7:07 12:25 RCA ARL1-0751
1974 Béroff Gewandhaus Orchestra Masur 10:19 2:33 5:46 10:43 EMI Pathé Marconi 2C-069-02764
1974 Ashkenazy London Symphony Orchestra Previn 12:08 2:36 6:22 11:26 Decca SXL 6767
1976 Krainev Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra Kitaenko 12:13 2:30 6:54 11:10 Melodiya С10-17139-40
1977 Alexeev Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Temirkanov 11:58 2:44 7:54 11:30 EMI ASD 3871
1978 live El Bacha Orchestre National de Belgique Octors 11:23 2:33 6:31 11:00 Deutsche Grammophon 2531 070
1983 Postnikova USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra Rozhdestvensky 12:40 2:43 7:36 12:01 Melodiya С10-23893-006
1983 Lapšanský Slovak Philharmonic Košler 12:33 2:40 6:55 12:07 Opus 9110 1510
1984 live Gutiérrez Berlin Philharmonic Tennstedt 11:29 2:36 6:59 11:44 Testament SBT2 1450
1988 Feltsman London Symphony Orchestra Tilson Thomas 11:45 2:41 7:00 11:16 CBS MK 44818
1990 Gutiérrez Concertgebouw Orchestra Järvi 10:59 2:29 6:42 10:59 Chandos CHAN 8889
1991 Paik Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Wit 12:40 2:24 6:36 11:46 Naxos 8.550565
1991 live Cherkassky London Philharmonic Orchestra Nagano 11:56 2:48 6:38 12:59 BBC Legends BBCL 4092-2
1991 live Petrov USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra Rozhdestvensky 11:40 2:34 7:39 11:08 Melodiya RCID18529725
1992 Krainev Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra Kitaenko 11:30 2:33 6:42 10:56 Teldec 4509-99698-2
1993 Bronfman Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Mehta 11:04 2:28 6:20 10:50 Sony SK 58966
1995 live Toradze Kirov Orchestra Gergiev 13:23 2:20 7:34 12:59 Philips 462 048-2
1995 Demidenko London Philharmonic Orchestra Lazarev 12:28 2:39 8:35 11:48 Hyperion CDA 66858
1996 live Takao Sydney Symphony Orchestra Tchivzhel 11:47 2:25 6:40 11:49 ABC Classics 454 975-2
2001 Marshev South Jutland Symphony Orchestra Willén 14:01 2:33 7:36 13:11 Danacord DACOCD 585
2002 Rodrigues Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Serov 11:51 2:32 7:25 12:59 Northern Flowers NFPMA 09 019
2004 live El Bacha Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie Ōno 11:33 2:35 6:24 10:58 Fuga Libera FUG 505
2004 live Hill Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fürst 11:44 2:50 7:48 13:08 ABC Classics 476 433-1
2007 Li Berlin Philharmonic Ozawa 11:09 2:17 5:41 11:02 Deutsche Grammophon 477 659-3
2008 live Kissin Philharmonia Orchestra Ashkenazy 11:56 2:24 6:35 11:38 EMI 2-64536-2
2008 Kempf Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra Litton 12:09 2:29 5:56 11:30 BIS BIS-1820 SACD
2009 Vinnitskaya Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin Varga 12:07 2:26 7:42 11:03 Naïve V-5238
2009 Gavrilyuk Sydney Symphony Orchestra Ashkenazy 12:23 2:42 5:58 11:46 Triton EXCL-00044
2010 live Kozhukhin Orchestre National de Belgique Alsop 12:37 2:40 7:35 12:59 Off The Records QEC 2010
2010 live Bronfman New York Philharmonic Gilbert 10:25 2:31 6:08 10:45 Apple iTunes n/a
2013 live Wang Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra Dudamel 11:01 2:21 6:34 10:59 Deutsche Grammophon 479 130-4
2013 Bavouzet BBC Philharmonic Noseda 11:09 2:31 6:19 11:22 Chandos CHAN 10802
2014 Gerstein Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin Gaffigan 10:59 2:36 6:48 10:53 Myrios MYR 016
2014 Shelest Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra Muus 11:51 2:30 6:52 12:20 Sorel SOLR 006
2015 Kholodenko Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Harth-Bedoya 12:10 2:39 6:42 11:55 Harmonia Mundi HMU 807631
2015 Rana Orchestra of Santa Cecilia Pappano 11:40 2:26 6:07 11:48 Warner 08256 46009 091
2016 live Matsuev Mariinsky Orchestra Gergiev 11:21 2:20 6:30 11:38 Mariinsky MAR 0599
2017 Mustonen Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra Lintu 11:58 2:59 7:04 12:10 Ondine ODE 12882
2018 Zhang Lahti Symphony Orchestra Slobodeniouk 11:24 2:31 6:33 11:33 BIS BIS-2381 SACD
2020 Trifonov Mariinsky Orchestra Gergiev 11:52 2:31 6:55 11:12 Deutsche Grammophon 483 533-1


The Prokofiev Page, a website by Sugi Sorensen, recommended the recording by Gutiérrez with Järvi and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra;[14] this received more acclaim when reissued in 2009.[15][16] More recently the Grammy-winning recording by Kissin, with Ashkenazy now conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, has received praise, as has that by Wang and Dudamel.[17][18]


The concerto's scherzo provides the musical score for Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel's animated short, Jeu.[19][20]


  1. ^ a b c Steinberg, M. The Concerto: A Listener's Guide, pp. 344–347, Oxford (1998).
  2. ^ Naxos.com: online liner notes
  3. ^ Jaffé 2008, p. 35.
  4. ^ "Sergei Prokofiev Foundation".
  5. ^ "San Francisco Symphony Program Notes". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27.
  6. ^ a b Nice 2003, p. 94
  7. ^ Nice, David. "Review: Anna Vinnitskaya recording of Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2.", BBC Music Magazine, February 2011
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Jaffé (Danacord)
  9. ^ Nestyev 1961, p. 73.
  10. ^ Matthew-Walker.
  11. ^ a b c d e Layton 1996, p. 206
  12. ^ Prokofiev, Sergey (1992). Soviet diary, 1927, and other writings. Oleg Prokofiev, Christopher Palmer. Boston: Northeastern University Press. p. 61. ISBN 1-55553-120-2. OCLC 25130975.
  13. ^ Nestyev 1961, p. 74.
  14. ^ Sorensen,Sugi; Choi, Lionel. "Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 16". The Prokofiev Page. Sugi Sorensen. Archived from the original on 30 November 2010. Retrieved 31 October 2010.
  15. ^ Morrison, Bryce (September 2009). "Review". Gramophone. Retrieved 17 July 2011.[dead link]
  16. ^ Parry, Tim (August 2009). "Review". BBC Music Magazine. Archived from the original on 19 March 2012. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
  17. ^ "Classical Net Review – Prokofieff/Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto #2/Piano Concerto #3". Classical Net. Retrieved 2016-02-19.
  18. ^ "Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Yuja Wang, Gustavo Dudamel – Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-02-19.
  19. ^ Townsend, Emru (August 24, 2006). "Jeu: Georges Schwizgebel's Game Without Frontiers". Frames per Second. Montreal. Archived from the original on December 18, 2009. Retrieved October 4, 2009.
  20. ^ Schwizgebel, Georges (2006). "Jeu". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 2009-10-04.


  • Jaffé, Daniel (2008). Sergey Prokofiev. London: Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-4774-0.
  • Jaffé, Daniel. Booklet note to Prokofiev 5 Piano Concertos, recorded by Oleg Marshev with South Jutland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Niklas Willén: Danacord DACOCD 584–585.
  • Layton, Robert (1996). "Russia after 1917". In Robert Layton (ed.). A Guide to the Concerto. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-288008-X.
  • Matthew-Walker, Robert. Booklet note to Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, recorded by Nikolai Demidenko with London Philharmonic, conducted by Alexander Lazarev: Hyperion CDA 66858.
  • Nestyev, Israel (1961). Prokofiev. Oxford University Press.
  • Nice, David (2003). Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891–1935. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09914-2.

External links[edit]