Soon after the 1918 premiere of Classical Symphony, Prokofiev left his homeland for the United States. During the next few years, he was in close contact with many of the most iconoclastic figures in the arts (from 1922 to 1936 he lived mainly in Paris, where his fellow artists included Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Picasso), and the music Prokofiev wrote during this period is much more experimental than any he had composed previously. The Second Symphony, written during the autumn and winter of 1924-25, is one of his most avantgarde and "difficult" works. Prokofiev said of it that he was aiming to construct a huge edifice "of iron and steel". Its dissonace, however, is not exactly unprecedented in Prokofiev's oeuvre. The Wind Quintet (Op. 39) of the same year is very similar in style, and this vein may be traced back through the cantata They are seven (1917-18) and the Scythian Suite to the set of piano piece Sarcasms (1912-14).
Formally the work is based on Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C minor, where the usual three- or four-movement sonata structure is compressed into two only. Thus the symphony consists of an austere sonata-allegro followed by a Theme and variations.
The first movement is a shattering eleven minutes of relentless energy. The music pelts along with obsessive, machine-like force: this is the characteristic Prokofiev "motor-line", avowedly derived from Schumann's Toccata Op. 7. Angular, spiky melodic lines have their edge sharpened by harmony in which tonalities are rapidly alternated or combined. The sense of dislocation produced by this polytonality has a ready parallel in the cubist art of the time, where the object is seen simultaneously along several planes.
The second movement is based on a theme Prokofiev wrote in 1918 and originally intended for a "white" (i.e. diatonic) string quartet. Its opening statement, Andante, has an almost English sound, with the sweet oboe melody set against divided strings. Variations I to IV show great diversity of mood, from playful (II) to trance-like (IV). Variation V returns to the energetic mood of the first movement; and with Variation VI material from the first movement returns at first to alternate and then to combine with the variation theme in a crashing climax. The work ends with an Andante molto reprise of the theme.
Program note by Ross Forman
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Walter Weller
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