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Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) – Violin Concerto No. 2

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante assai
3. Allegro ben marcato 

Student of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glière, Prokofiev had an especially acute ear for sonority and sonic drama, and his obviously pungent, abrasive music soon gained him a “punk rocker” reputation. Less obviously, he was a fertile lyricist, spinning out his melodies to extraordinary lengths. Whilst explaining his fondness for the violin, this also pretty well dictated his formal style - weaving fabrics of alternation, variation and extension. 

Although in the Second Violin Concerto (1935) the mature composer’s lyricism is more conspicuous, it still grazes particularly sensitive skins and, being as thoroughly episodic as a soap-opera, confirms that he wasn’t particularly hot on musical form. Ha! Artlessness conceals Art! 

For starters, the episodic overlay of the first movement’s sonata-form creates “cubist” perspectives. Then the movement’s grotesque ending, succeeded by a steadily-treading accompaniment “borrowed from Bach”, maximises the Romantic impact of the second movement’s theme. Get your jaw back together quickly, or you’ll miss the formal felicities - notably, enfolded by lyrical variations, a subsidiary agitato episode which, at the apex of the symmetrical layout, blossoms into a cheeky scherzando of nigh-on independent means. 

Rondos being naturally episodic, the finale would seem to be straightforward - until Prokofiev plays his trump card. The violin, thus far a co-operative and polite protagonist, starts a raucous, clod-hopping knees-up. From about half-way, episodes start to fray at the edges, increasingly deteriorating into inebriate skitterings. The orchestra increasingly dissociates itself, presumably because orchestral players are above this sort of thing. Finally, pursued only by bass drum and lower strings, the tipsy violin collides with a wall, followed by the floor. Rondo à la Booze, perhaps? Well, that’s just how it sounds! 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 23 October 2004

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© Paul Serotsky
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