Sergei Prokoviev (1891- 1953) was one of the great composers and pianists of the last century. Accordingly, he wrote much music for piano which he frequently performed as soloist. Of his five concertos for piano and orchestra, none is more challenging than #2 in G minor. The concerto has a convoluted history.

The composer started work on the piece in 1912. The concerto was premiered in 1913 with Prokoviev at the piano. The composer was only 21 at this time and still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. The work has four movements unlike the usual three. It did not receive a favorable response from the premiere audience. The composer recalled the premiere:

“Following the violent concluding chord there was silence in the hall for a few moments. Then boos and catcalls were answered with loud applause, thumping of sticks and calls for ‘encore.’ I came out twice to acknowledge the reception, hearing cries of approval and boos coming from the hall. I was pleased that the concerto provoked such strong feelings in the audience.”

The score was destroyed in a fire following the Russian Revolution. Two years after finishing his third piano concerto (1923) Prokofiev decided to reconstruct the destroyed #2. The result was virtually a new work that Prokoviev decided to call his Piano Concerto # 2, though he said that it had so much new material that it could be labeled as his fourth. It was first performed in Paris again with the composer as soloist under the direction of  Serge Koussevitzky.

The concerto has deservedly earned the reputation as the most technically challenging piano concerto in the standard repertoire; the second and fourth movements are particularly difficult. Prokoviev himself came to grief with the concerto when he returned to it in the 1930s when the piece was not at the ready in his head or fingers. It’s a very interesting work that is not performed as frequently as the very popular Prokoviev third concerto. There are two reasons for this lesser frequency. First is the extraordinary demand on the soloist. Second is that while anything by Prokoviev is of interest, the second concerto is not as musically compelling as its predecessor, by the time of composition if not by number – the composer’s third piano concerto.

A video of the second concerto is below. The soloist is the Russian virtuoso Anna Vinnitskaya. The Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Marek Janowski. Ms Vinnitskaya has made a specialty of Prokofiev’s second concerto. She played the work at the 2007 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition at which she was awarded first prize. As you can hear in the video, she has fingers of steel and a technique that is so formidable that it reminds the listener of another great woman virtuoso – Marta Argerich. Her performance is layered with technical brilliance. What’s lacking is an emotional core. That deficiency may belong to the music rather than the performer. Note the staid reaction of the Dresden audience at the completion of the performance despite Vinnitskaya’s extraordinary playing.

Ms Argerich is particularly identified with Prokofiev’s very popular Concerto #3. A video of her playing the work is at the end of this article. I don’t believe she has ever attempted the second concerto.

Added September 9, 2013: I’ve added a video of the great Chinese virtuoso Yuja Wang playing the concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Paavo Järvi. She swallowed it whole.

Prokoviev Piano Concerto No 2 Yuja Wang