Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 2, op. 16

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
This was kind of Ashkenazy’s warhorse for a while I’m told. The Interwebs told me. This piece comes up often in the “hardest piano concerto ever” discussions that many an amateur like to have. I believe that comes from summing up the scope of the greatest challenge possible and putting things into perspective against it. Maybe. Anyway, Prok 2, Rach 2 and 3, Brahms 2, and Bartok 1 and 2 seem to be the ones that are most often agreed upon as being frighteningly, intensely difficult (obviously in different ways). Wikipedia quotes Prokofiev biographer David Nice saying:

“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.”

It’s understandable. This is a big, intense, emotional piece. Not as long as Rach 3, either of the Brahms concerti or the Busoni, but it’s emotionally charged and demands quite some interpretation and creation of atmosphere. I am not speaking from the position of someone who knows anything about playing this piece, but there is a distinct difference in the emotional expressiveness in the different recordings I’ve listened to. I’m not necessarily sure if there’s anything about this piece in particular that makes it more outstandingly difficult to interpret, but it would seem to me to be difficult to make sense out of the music in a logical, expressively understandable way. That’s not to say that Prokofiev wrote nonsensical drivel, it’s just to say that there seem to be to be lots of emotions and distinct passages juxtaposed within individual movements, or the interaction between soloist and orchestra, etc. and to accentuate all of them must be difficult, demanding, and tiring. And take a great deal of insight.
The version first, premiered in 1913 with the composer as soloist, was lost in a fire and 

Prokofiev reconstructed and changed much of the work. This version was premiered (composer as soloist again) in Paris in May of 1924, with Serge Koussevitsky, the man who seems to have been everywhere at the beginning of the 20th century, conducting that premiere. It is dedicated to Maximilian Schmidthof, a friend of the composer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory who committed suicide and had left a farewell letter for Prokofiev.
The reception at that premiere was “intense”, although divided on their opinions, both positive and negative.
While I can’t speak with much authority, I enjoy Ashkenazy’s performance with the LSO. Some still criticize it for being unfeeling and prefer Gutierrez and Järvi with the RCO. I would like to hear it, but am perfectly pleased with Ashkenazy’s performance here. He’s one of the most Russian piano playing folks out there, and to my ear, he does this piece justice.
Tempi. Perhaps the simplest or most straightforward or concrete, quantifiable aspect of interpretation. Maybe? There’s something about this piece, and in particular this version, that feels like a perfect balance between a pushing, rushed anxious energy and a dragging, heavy, death-march sort of torpidity, and that feels appropriate for this piece.
Emotionally, the piece is almost frightening, almost violent and a bit grotesque, but in the most elegant way possible. It carries the same sort of sarcasm and wit that much of Prokofiev’s music does, but set against a frighteningly dark, heavy, morose stormy atmosphere. This stark contrast is nearly shocking. I don’t quite know how to describe it. The piece opens peacefully but a bit forebodingly and the first piano lines are beautiful and almost serene. There piece becomes more and more charged up to the Allegretto at rehearsal mark 7, about 3 minutes in, where the strings are sharp and crunchy in the background. It builds momentum up to an almost-clumsily rolling along, trudging forward mass, and flutes and oboes enter on top in a high register. It feels like the entire symphony is united now, at once in unison and cacophony. By rehearsal mark 20, we are into the frighteningly complicated cadenza, where the piano reintroduces the theme from the beginning before taking the entire development portion of the first movement on its shoulders (in three staves).
I’ll take a moment to interject here something even less objective than what I’ve shared so far. As stated earlier, this piece is dedicated to Prokofiev’s friend at the St. Petersburg Conservatory who committed suicide and had left a letter for the composer. There’s nothing else I’ve read or seen to suggest this aside from my own personal feelings on the music, but it sounds like this entire piece is almost a musical representation of the composer’s personal grief cycle. It is at different turns angry and dark and remorseful and cheery and reminiscent and resentful and lost and resolute. It’s all in there, and the cadenzas (the magnificent one in the first movement in particular) feel like a soliloquy where the performer gives him/herself up to the orchestra or submits to the volatility and uncertainty of life. I must say, that moment when the cadenza is nearing its end… Even if you’re unfamiliar with the piece, it feels conclusive or final, and the orchestra comes crashing back in, low brass growling and flutes wailing in the higher register as the piano completes its dialogue of sorrow, anger and confusion. Everything then, seemingly and without purpose or reason, returns to the peaceful opening phrase in a moment of calm reflection, dying out softly.
The middle two movements are somewhat simpler in form than the outer two. The second is a flittering, dizzyingly busy scherzo that is nervous, unsettled, and impatient. It’s only a few minutes long, (about two and a half) but the piano ticks out sixteenth notes the entire movement, at the dazzling rate of about ten notes per second. It is more regular in its rhythms, almost calculated and mathematical in contrast with the frenetic nature of the first movement, but it still retains its own hurried unsettled energy, and it feels like forward progress and cars and life buzzing around.
Contrastingly, the third movement is heavy and trudging. I almost want to use the word clumsy, except that it isn’t. In contrast with the metered clarity of the second movement, this one feels a bit like it’s going to topple over, but it settles down. This one has its moments of playfulness and clarity, but there’s always something there to keep it from being ‘happy’. It’s an intermezzo, not an adagio or slow movement, but the middle section has a few moments of hopeful beauty, but there’s always something to hold it back.
The fourth movement has a few different sections and feels as disjointed as the first. That’s not to make a criticism of the style or structure of the music; its dialogue is perfectly clear, but it has a few distinctly separate sections that are almost standalone. There are some moments of beauty. I love the moment of repose between the woodwinds and piano around rehearsal mark 99 or 100. The final movement is full of these little gems. It’s exactly these little moments among the craziness and high-strung energy of the piece that makes it so rich. It’s all about contrast and balance, and although everyone’s experience with this (or any) piece will be different, as will the dialogue they hear, there’s no questioning it’s a powerful, intense, moving expression of highs and lows, much like those in life.

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