Specifically, I love the first movement. Unfortunately, my hands are small (can barely reach an octave) and my teacher in high school wouldn’t let me play things that I couldn’t reach, so this was out of the question for me. I know, I know. Alicia de la Rocha had small hands and still managed to be a concert pianist. But she mostly played Bach, not Rachmaninoff [ed. I mean Prokofiev I think but Rachmaninoff also has proved a challenge for my small hands]. Very different things.
Anyway, enough about me and my hands. About the Concerto:
Prokofiev completed his second piano concerto in 1913, dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April, shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friend Prokofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer in preparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them to Paris, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the Black Sea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk, provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approval from the more progressive.
The orchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Opus 16, was destroyed in a fire, during Prokofiev’s absence from Russia after 1918, and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Dyagilev showed interest in what seemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet, eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, became the Scythian Suite, music that Glazunov found even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Dyagilev arranged a concert appearance for Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto to the expected mixed response. Dyagilev now offered a more congenial commission for The Buffoon (Chout), a ballet eventually staged in Paris in 1921.
The concerto is in four movements and opens with a lyrical Andantino and textures, at least, that suggest the chromaticism and piano-writing of Rachmaninov. The second movement is a Scherzo, in the key of D minor, music that offers a technical challenge to the soloist in its busy octaves. The original key of G minor is restored in the third movement> Intermezzo, a march in ironic mood rather than the more lyrical movement suggested by the title. The virtuoso finale recalls in its first subject the first movement, leading to a second subject of obviously Russian character. There is an extended cadenza before the orchestra returns with the principal theme.
The following are a few different renditions of the Concerto to mull over. I had the Yefim Bronfman recording in high school, so probably I prefer it simply because it is very familiar and comfortable. As always, I love Evgeny Kissin‘s version because, well, he’s amazing. Yundi Li‘s performance is also lovely.
It has been said of the work:
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 withAnsermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers.”
Furthermore, the cadenza in the first movement, which comprises close to half of the first movement, is among the most difficult in piano repertoire.
Update: Watch Beatrice Rana perform the concerto during the Finals of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition: