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
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.
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev