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Doing Two Masterpieces Full Justice,
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This review is from: Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 (Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo) (Ondine: ODE 1181-2) (Audio CD)
What an excellent recording this is. For those familiar with the Ondine label the near demonstration sound engineering won't come as a surprise or the virtuosity of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra: the depth of talent in Finnish classical music continues to amaze.
That leaves us with Sakari Oramo's take on these two mighty symphonies. The fact that they both fit onto one CD should give a clue, given that the most weighty and ponderous takes on these two works would take it beyond ninety minutes as Oramo takes less than eighty.
This may appear most marked in the Fifth with Oramo running through the slow movements quite quickly. In the case of the third movement this really helps because, as lovely as it all sounds, it can drag and the symphonic thread be lost. The two quicker movements are taken at a less vigorous pace than some, providing a lighter elegance in the finale. The overall effect is to present a well-argued symphonic construction rather than allowing space to enjoy the bigger climaxes and the most lyrical wallows.
This reduces some of the drama but takes out some of the unnecessary bombast at the end of the first movement. Overall it isn't the last word in this piece but it is a lighter and very coherent view. For those who have enjoyed the weightier Karajan or Weller's excellent versions this one might come as a shock but there's definitely a place for both.
The Sixth is far less popular than the Fifth: its pessimism and honesty are remarkable but hardly crowds pleasing. If you have a strong stomach and can face the uncompromising bleakness then you'll find yourself presented with one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century; thematically memorable, starkly scored with three remarkably eloquent and coherent movements.
The dissonance here is not simply for effect, it always serves the dramatic purpose: not something you could say for some of the earlier symphonies - every note counts.
The opening movement sets out with stark brass chords before introducing the contrasts and conflicts that continue throughout the work. The second carries flashes of sharp pain but also much melancholic nostalgia that doesn't belong in a Soviet paradise.
No matter how many time is hear it the shift from the light scherzando opening of the finale through its drift between irreconcilable distant keys and its inevitable final chords of rage and pain is quite extraordinary; here is a composer being starkly honest from beginning to last and making his case crystal clear. All the more startling given the Soviet censorship of the time: it's as if he was passed caring what they thought.
Weller's version, for example, lasts nearly forty five minutes but Oramo takes only thirty eight, only marginally slower than Ashkenazy's no nonsense approach. Frankly, it doesn't matter which you choose it is a shattering experience whoever controls the baton. Oramo's pace loses none of the drama and intensity despite the quicker tempo. If anything, it is increased here.
Served too by the superb sound engineering and high class orchestra this recording is worth having for the Sixth on its own. The Fifth has been well served elsewhere but this is an interpretation not to be missed. For lovers of Prokofiev's finest symphonies this is essential listening.