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Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 8, 1962, John Barbirolli conducting, with soloist David Frisina
In 1935 Prokofiev was ready to return to Russia. He had left his homeland in 1918, and tried living in the United States and Paris – when he wasn’t touring, that is. Genuine homesickness and a sense for career opportunities drove Prokofiev’s decision to ignore the ominously lowering Stalinist clouds. He had begun the awkward steps of a repatriation dance in 1932 when he accepted a commission to compose music for the film Lieutenant Kijé, and similar projects followed, including the ballet Romeo and Juliet.
The Second Violin Concerto was Prokofiev’s last Western commission, from the French violinist Robert Soëtens, who had played the 1932 premiere of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins with Samuel Dushkin.
The soloist opens the Concerto, alone and unequivocally in G minor. Yet by the end of his metrically ambiguous phrase, the muted violas and basses enter in the remote key of B minor. The home key is soon restored, however, and the warm second theme enters in the relative major, B-flat. In the recapitulation, it is the cellos and basses that bring back the opening theme. When they get to the point where the orchestra had redirected the motion to B minor, it is the soloist who now enters in G minor, completing a classical harmonic reconciliation.
The Andante assai is in many ways the sunlight version of the dark lyricism of the first movement. The soloist arcs a radiant, long-breathed melody over pizzicato strings, their two-against-three metrical divergence suggesting a gentle jazz rubato more than real tension. This is launched in E-flat major, and at the close of the soloist’s initial statement, strings take it up, muted and on B as in the first movement, though this time in major mode.
By this time, it should be no surprise that one of the episodes in Prokofiev’s rondo finale is in B major. This is dance music, angular and athletic. The premiere performance was scheduled for Madrid, and Prokofiev added castanets and Spanish ornamentation and cross-accents to the mix. It ends with a big coda, mostly with the soloist dancing furiously in 5/4 with just percussion and a bass line – the final flurry is marked tumultuoso.
— John Henken