Prokofiev Symphonies Nos 5 & 6
Composed just months before the defeat of Nazi Germany, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony usually starts like a giant slowly rousing itself to action. Few conductors take its opening quite as slowly as the score’s designated crotchet=43, but Sakari Oramo, at crotchet=72, takes easily the fastest tempo on disc. The result sounds more light-footed and less portentous than usual, and certainly makes the first movement’s structure easier to grasp. Unfortunately, Oramo’s tempo also undermines that movement’s sense of weight, which is surely meant to be contrasted with the fleeting scherzo that follows. Indeed, Oramo finds a median tempo more or less throughout the work, so losing the contrasts upon which its drama thrives. Strangely, he breaks this trend with a relatively deliberate tempo for the finale, making it less the exhilarating ride other conductors make of it and more a festival of clod-hopping grotesques.
After this disappointing performance, it is a pleasant surprise to find the Sixth Symphony, written in memory of those with ‘wounds which cannot be healed’, given one of the most effective and powerful interpretations since that of its original performers, Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. Aided by a clean and unfussy recorded acoustic, Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra bring out the work’s remarkable colours and character. In the second movement one senses the Symphony’s deliberate hesitations, and those moments where certainties are undermined by a curdled harmony or a baleful brass fanfare, counterbalanced with some of the most poignant and candidly tender melodies Prokofiev ever composed.