One of the sternest critics of Prokofiev's Second Symphony following its unsuccessful 1925 premiere under Koussevitsky was the composer himself. "Neither I nor the audience understood anything in it," he remarked, softening his rejection somewhat with the remark that he "cherished the hope that it is a worthy piece of work". Still, with its extreme brutality, dissonance and gnarled counterpoint, it made few friends. Koussevitsky never programmed it again and, as far as I can learn, there were no further performances of it until Charles Bruck made this recording in 1957.
Listening with today's ears it is easy to hear that Prokofiev - then living in Paris where avant-garde art attracted a fashionable audience who eagerly paid to be scandalised - had spent a lot of time studying Stravinsky, especially Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring. But the immediate stimulus for the Second Symphony was Honegger's Pacific 231, which used a large orchestra to suggest the speed and power of the giant steam engine of its title. Machine music was in vogue at the time, with composers like George Antheil scoring music for airplane engines and Aleksandr Mossolov marshalling massive orchestral forces to evoke the pounding noise in an iron foundry. Prokofiev thought Honegger's piece was mostly effect with little substance, and set out to write a symphony "made of iron and steel" that used a similar musical vocabulary to create something deeper and stronger.
His dismissal of his Second Symphony seems disingenuous today. It is clearly one of his masterpieces and for me, together with the Sixth, one of his two finest symphonies. The fact that during his last years he was considering revisiting and reworking it may confirm the suspicion that he was always fond of it. Considering the fall-off in inspiration shown in his last works, it is probably a good thing that he never got around to tampering with it.
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