Prokofiev Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor, op. 111

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa, or below by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev

Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.

(cover image by Filip Bunkens)

And with this symphony, we complete our discussion of Prokofiev’s symphonies. We began with the first many years ago, then I wrote about the fourth, fifth and seventh, and within the past few weeks, the second, third and now the sixth. I was excited to have the opportunity to hear this work performed live, but then the program was changed, so I had my ticket refunded. Oh well.

The composition of Prokofiev’s sixth was begun before the completion of the much more famous fifth. It was finished in 1947 and premiered on October 11 of that year by the Leningrad Philharmonic with Mravinsky conducting.

Wikipedia says that the symphony was “written as an elegy of the tragedies of World War II,” and says that it “has often been regarded as the darker twin to the victorious Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major.”

The work is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of about three quarters of an hour:

  1. Allegro moderato (E-flat minor, ends in E-flat major)
  2. Largo (A-flat major)
  3. Vivace (E-flat major)

The first movement has three themes, and an interesting layout as a result. Wikipedia describes the first of the three, featuring violins and violas, as “like the winds of a graveyard, but it doesn’t sound nearly as somber to me as it does foreshadowing of what seems to be the inevitable appearance of Prokofiev’s iconic, playfully dark-humored sound. The most tragic thing in this first theme is the plaintive, almost chorale-like additions from brass here and there.

The second and third themes feature double reeds, oboe and English horn, respectively. The oboe carries the second theme, which does sound melancholic and mournful, dirge-like. This is the most compelling of the themes, I think, but it leads into a more march-like theme, so Russian, so Prokofiev, with piano and low brass and everything. If you wanted to be a little too programmatic or literal about it, you could think of these three ideas as different sides of war: the first solitude or emptiness, the second mourning, and then what’s left over. The march sounds militaristic, but some bounce, albeit far from chipper.

The development section is made up primarily of the first theme, and then the recapitulation features only the second and third themes, so there is a bit of delineation that way. The development seems almost as if it’s going to blossom out into something buoyant and playful, but gets to a really dark place before the recapitulation. Horns feature beautifully in key moments throughout this work, especially with other solo instruments.

The second movement, at least in Ozawa’s recording, is only a minute shorter than the first movement. You may not expect it, and I certainly didn’t judging from the ‘largo’ marking and the major key, but the opening of the central movement sounds positively cataclysmic, but it does soften. Once the harsher layers are peeled away, like an onion, there is revealed a much warmer, broad, expressive theme that almost suggests Rachmaninoff. There’s even harp.

Wiki tells us that this movement is in an arch form. You may remember this from Bartók and others, essentially a symmetrical shape with the themes mirrored around a central section. You’ll know when that central section arrives: it’s much heavier than what comes before or after, but then we go back out the way we came in, by means of that much softer, Rachmaninoff-like theme (with more cameos from horns!) we heard earlier.

What’s most notable here to me, though, is how we get from that theme back up to the more intense mood of the opening before ending peacefully with flute and celesta. This juxtaposition is a recurring idea in this work, and while I don’t see it as crushingly tragic and bleak as much of Shostakovich, it’s effective.

The finale is where that playful, mischievous Prokofiev finally appears, but not entirely ignorant of what came before, and also not without protest. The opening seems light and carefree, but this is interrupted by a hammering gesture from piano and low voices. These two things on their own might possibly be enough for a finale, but this is still only the first theme. The second theme features woodwinds again, with a flatulent brass contribution and strings like the wheels of a train. This is of greater energy, but distinctly less carefree.

Ultimately, though… after coming to enjoy even what I guess would be considered the less appreciated symphonies of his seven, I think I find the sixth the least compelling. The second, third, and the two fourths are the ones that have their roots (as in, at least heritage) in the composer’s stage works. As a result, they’re a little more oddball than the others. (The fourth at least is more traditionally structured.) Reading about this work on paper, or what it tries to accomplish, or what the composer had in mind, it seems like something I’d like, but I don’t feel that way once I”m finished.

I feel the piece doesn’t live up to that “darker twin” idea in the sense that it doesn’t leave me anywhere close to as affected as his second, or fifth, or even seventh, and certainly not in the way that Shostakovich’s wartime works do. I tried with this one, thought maybe it was Ozawa’s interpretation that was leaving me not thrilled, but after a few of Gergiev’s (one of which with Mariinsky on an album with the late piano concertos has a movement from one of the piano concertos incorrectly placed where the sixth’s second movement should be…) as well, I’m still not thrilled about it the way I am about the others.

But that’s okay. We’ve got two more piano concertos of his to discuss, and lots else, but not for now. This will see us finished with his symphonies, and for now, Russian stuff, as we’ll move on to other things. Stay tuned, and thanks so much for listening.

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