Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor begins with a lonely, lamenting statement in the solo violin. It’s a strangely solitary voice which opens the door to an unsettling drama filled with chilly anxiety and occasional raw terror.
Prokofiev puts the listener ill at ease right from the start. The piece opens with the solo violin alone, playing a foreboding melody in G minor that is based on a 5‐beat motive. We are used to hearing musical ideas that fall neatly into 2, 3, 4, or 6‐beat patterns. Five beats don’t feel comfortable. Furthermore, since the violin is alone, the orchestra gives the listener no additional context to find his bearings. When the orchestra finally comes in several bars later, it enters in a completely different tonality, further throwing the listener off balance and compounding the sense of unease. The movement closes with one of the most nihilistic statements in music I know: two short, dry pizzicati thuds from the entire orchestra, like a falling guillotine.
Prokofiev wrote this music in 1935 as he was preparing to resettle in his native Russia after years abroad in Paris and the United States. In order to be repatriated, he needed to appease Stalin and his restrictive artistic ideals of “Soviet Realism.” For Prokofiev, this meant abandoning the “decadent formalism” of his earlier enfant terrible years. His (at the time) newly completed film score for Lieutenant Kijé (1934) and the ballet score for Romeo and Juliet (1938) moved in this new direction.
The second theme of the Violin Concerto’s opening movement (Allegro moderato)seems to anticipate the shimmering Romanticism of Romeo and Juliet. Endlessly expansive, sensual, and filled with sudden harmonic turns, it’s the kind of melody that could only have been conceived by Prokofiev. In a way similar to this excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, this restless second theme is continuously opening the door to the brief transcendence of a new, “better” key. In a movement filled with edgy, biting sarcasm, this theme takes us to a different world, briefly. Yet, when it returns in the recapitulation, it seems to be shrouded in new mystery and lament. (Listen to the wandering clarinet line, and the way the bass sinks into dark, ominous depths).
The spirit of naive, youthful passion we sense throughout Romeo and Juliet is evident in the second movement (Andante assai). The solo violin’s beautiful, serene melody emerges over a tiptoeing, repeating pizzicato bass line, colored by the clarinet. It’s a shimmering, virtual ballet scene without dancers, choreography, or scenery. This drama unfolds as a dialogue between the solo violin and the colorful instrumental voices of the orchestra. Listen to the way these voices seem to “awaken” gradually as the movement progresses. In the final bars, the solo violin picks up the opening pizzicato line for the first time, while an icy memory of the melody emerges in the orchestra. (Notice the “underwater” quality of the flute in its lowest register). The movement’s sunny innocence evaporates into darkness.
The final movement (Allegro, ben marcato) is a wild, exhilarating dance filled with biting sarcasm and demonic shrieks. Castanets in the percussion section add a Spanish flavor, and there is one moment where I am always reminded of Mahler’s wrenching orchestration. As the movement progresses, the rhythm feels increasingly off balance. The ending is pure rock and roll, with the violin’s furious virtuoso lines accompanied by the earthy thud of the bass drum (a sound we heard briefly in the first movement). Stefan Jackiw writes,
For me, the most hair‐raising moments of the piece come in the coda of the finale. Here again, Prokofiev uses meter as a tool to terrify. The movement’s rollicking dance in 6‐beat time degenerates into a 5‐beat stumble, and we are left careening to the finish, which the composer marks “tumultuoso” (a great Italian adjective).
We explored Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, completed in 1917, in a previous post.
Five Great Recordings
- Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op.63, Maxim Vengerov, Mstislav Rostropovich, London Symphony Orchestra prestomusic.com
- Nathan Milstein’s 1965 live recording with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the New Philharmonia Orchestra
- Leila Josefowicz with Charles Dutoit and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (2001 studio recording)
- Viktoria Mullova with André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Kyung Wha Chung with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra