The renowned virtuoso Jascha Heifetz called Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto “one of the greatest concertos in the world violin literature”. The composer himself wrote about the process of its creation in his 1941 Short Biography:
“In 1935 a group of admirers [of Soetens] asked me to write a violin concerto for him, giving him exclusive rights to perform it for one year. The number of places in which I wrote the Concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku, and the premiere was given in Madrid. This performance is associated with our interesting collaborative concert tour with Soetens in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. During the tour, in addition to my works, we played with him a Debussy sonata and a sonata by Beethoven.”
Originally, Prokofiev planned to call his work “A Concert Sonata for Violin and Orchestra”, but then returned to the traditional generic designation “concerto”. In fact, this is the last major work from the composer’s overseas period. The first performance was planned for the autumn of 1935 in Paris, but was rescheduled for the following year and the premiere took place at the Madrid Monumental Theater on December 1, conducted by the very popular conductor of the time Eduardo Fernandez Arbos, with Robert Soetens subsequently giving a Paris performance on February 15, 1936 under the baton of Charles Munch. Performances conducted by the author were soon to follow in Brussels and London, and in Moscow the concerto was heard on a Prokofiev authorial concert in the autumn of 1937, sharing the program with his Fourth Symphony and the Second Suite from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The concerto quickly entered the repertoire of the world’s greatest violinists, who left superb recordings – Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein and Isaac Stern with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, Henryk Szeryng with the London Philharmonic conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, as well as in performances by Ruggiero Ricci, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan.
Written about two decades after the First, the Second Violin Concerto, in Prokofiev’s own words, is “completely different”, more chamber-like in texture, with transparent orchestration and predominantly song-dance thematic strains. The solo violin opens the first movement playing unaccompanied and “intoning” the main theme, reminiscent of a Russian song tune. The lines of the Adagio are fashioned in a plastic manner and are suggestive of some lyrical episodes from the ballet Romeo and Juliet, composed at the same time. The exuberant finale reflects a reminiscence of dancing genres and Spanish ethnic element – it features castanets.