Symphonic Song, Op.57
Piano Concerto No.5 in G, Op.55
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111
Steven Osborne (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 18 January, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The justification for the London Philharmonic’s series title – Prokofiev, Man of the People? – seems to be that during the Soviet period he received the title “People’s Artist” and, in his last phase, complied with official demands for tunefulness and optimism. The reality is that Prokofiev was anything but a man of the people.
The series’s stated objective is to shine a light on Prokofiev’s lesser-known music. Whilst some – notably the Fifth Piano Concerto – certainly deserve an occasional airing, others such as the Symphonic Song, which opened this concert, deserve their obscurity. For all Jurowski’s advocacy – precision of playing and finely nuanced solo work – Symphonic Song can best be described as a pendant to the world of The Fiery Angel without anything of that opera’s passion or melodic distinction, a stone best left unturned.
Sviatoslav Richter made something of a speciality of the intractable five-movement Fifth Piano Concerto, his power and charisma bringing it vibrantly to life. It would idle to pretend that Steven Osborne (here wisely playing from the music) brings anything like the same weight but he knows this music and, in a finely judged partnership with Jurowski and the LPO, it came across as more concertante rather than concerto, the soloist very much a first among equals. With elegant clarinet solos from Nicholas Carpenter and an insouciant wit, the second movement’s jazz echoes were finely delineated. The affecting Larghetto with its unusual orchestration including bass drum, trombones and tuba, was proof positive that Prokofiev had as much heart as head.
Written in the dying days of the Second World War the Sixth Symphony is perhaps the bleakest of all Prokofiev’s works and can be quite shattering. However, it can prove elusive and on this occasion it was a disappointment. Although sectional, the opening movement pursues a progressive upward emotional curve to its devastating climax and epilogue. Misjudge the tempo relationships or fail to sustain the intensity and the various sections fall apart. In this case the Allegro moderato flowed all-too-too easily, string phrasing under-characterised, whilst the ostinato at the movement’s heart was completely devoid of menace. Consequently, instead of a release of carefully accumulated tensions, the ascent to the movement’s grim climax – it is marked to be played just a little faster – sped along and was trivialised. Similarly the Largo’s keening threnody and the helter-skelter finale scarcely grazed the music’s surface, the latter determined to be cheerful at all costs reduced to pastiche Rossini and the final scream of undiluted pain before the juddering halt scarcely registering. In a rehearsal with the Leningrad Philharmonic Evgeny Mravinsky announced in a quietly threatening tone: “My friends, we are coasting”, a description which might sum up this whole performance.