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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [41:39]
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1946) [38:08]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, 15-17 August 2011 (No. 5), 9-11 September 2010 (No. 6)
ONDINE ODE1181-2 [79:47]

Experience Classicsonline

A single CD which couples Prokofiev’s two greatest symphonies - or should we say ‘his two great symphonies’, which is not quite the same thing - is bound to assume a strong position in the catalogue. With good sound and excellent orchestral playing this new recording ticks all the right boxes. The question is therefore: how strong should those ticks be?
Prokofiev described his Fifth Symphony as ‘A symphony about the spirit of man, the culmination of the larger part of my creative life’. What he meant by that is that it represents a major statement, both because it was written towards the victorious conclusion of the Great Patriotic War, and because he was returning to composing a symphony for the first time in fifteen years. In a sense the point can extend further still to the Classical Symphony of 1917, which was the previous occasion that he composed a symphony from scratch, without leaning on an existing work for the theatre to form the basis.
Symphonic logic is therefore a priority, and Oramo scores strongly here, with eloquently evolving lines and an overview which gets the main ideas into their respective positions in the developing drama. The many instrumental solos are handled with aplomb and the recorded balance never lets anyone down. If the most powerful moments, such as the end of the first movement and the big climax in the slow movement, don’t pack as much of a weighty punch as for example in Karajan’s classic Berlin Philharmonic recording (DG Originals 463613-2) it’s probably because of Oramo’s overview of the symphony. Nor do these climaxes lack impact.
The same thing might be said of the rhythmic vivacity and wit which prevails so much in movements two and four. It is always present, but symphonic line seems the greater priority.
Of these two performances, it is the Sixth which makes the stronger impression; and perhaps that is true of the compositions themselves. If Prokofiev’s magnificent Fifth Symphony is a work which relates to the victorious outcome of the 'Great Patriotic War' - in his own words, 'a symphony about the spirit of man' - the Symphony No. 6 is an altogether more complex affair. It is every inch the equal of its illustrious predecessor.
The first performance, under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky, was given at the opening concert of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra's 1947 season. Prokofiev had completed the Symphony in February of that year, though his sketches stretched back over many years. Evidently the music meant a great deal to him; and it is true that few of his other compositions can match the intensity of expression and clarity of construction which are combined here. The 'personal' thoughts of great artists were not Stalin's preferred mode of expression, and the Sixth was the main reason why Prokofiev, along with other major figures, was attacked for 'formalist tendencies' at the notorious Congress of Soviet Composers in 1948.
Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra project this intensity of vision from the very first bar. Again the conductor’s grasp of structure and line is never in question, and in this emotionally complex work this brings abundant rewards. The music is at once dark and powerful, and it is deeply characteristic. Towards the end the music turns towards a tragedy, and it ends in abrupt, fateful collapse. No wonder it brought political problems in its wake.
This is a very different response to war, as Prokofiev explained to his biographer Israel Nestyev: 'Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds which can never be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These things must not be forgotten.' These powerful feelings are conveyed in this excellent new recording. 

Terry Barfoot 

Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies



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