The final instalment of Valery Gergiev’s Prokofiev symphony cycle with the Mariinsky Orchestra shed light on the composer’s late works, and was as illuminating as the previous two concerts in the series.
Late in life Prokofiev’s works took a darker turn, and while his characteristic humour is still present there are more threats in the shadows, particularly where the Symphony no.6 is concerned. This is increasingly regarded as the masterpiece of the seven, and in the right performance it carries a shattering impact.
This was the right performance emotionally, if not always in terms of ensemble. Gergiev has been unfairly criticised this week for fielding unrehearsed performances – there was absolutely no evidence to these ears in the first two concerts of that! – but in the first movement of the Sixth a few things went awry, particularly with extraneous noise from a violin and a number of flat horn solos.
The emotional content, however, was not affected, and as the symphony wore on so did the feeling of impending dread. Brief consolation was offered by the lovely, chant-like theme given to flute and oboe, but the lower end of the orchestra worked hard in punching their rhythms to the front of the performance, the sound of a machine going wrong. As the final movement started its jolly approach soon emptied, and after the brief reappearance of the consoling theme some shattering chords signalled the descent into absolute darkness. It was an incredibly powerful moment from both conductor and orchestra, and no wonder there was a pause before the applause began.
Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.6.
The Symphony no.7 has a similarly awkward ending, though here the composer is more resigned to his fate, for illness was now taking over Prokofiev’s life. The lovely unison tune that is the symphony’s calling card was beautifully sung by much of the orchestra, while the quick step theme for the last movement was impishly done, but again the sense of emptiness came through, the ticks and tocks of the final page leaving a sour taste. Prior to this the second and third movements felt like barely finished sketches, but Gergiev characterised them as he would a ballet score. It was a performance notable for its beauty – much of the ensemble problems had been restored – and also its thoughtfulness.
Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.7.
Between the two symphonies there was an extraordinary performance of the Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra. This marked the UK debut of the Russian cellist Alexander Ramm, and on this evidence he will be back very soon. His intonation was incredibly secure and his virtuosity almost beyond question, even in the most demanding passages where the cello sits at the very top of its register.
Power, pace and passion were the features of the fast music, but when this briefly relented there was a real depth of feeling to the soaring, chant-like melody of the second movement. Gergiev and the orchestra gave crisp accompaniment, but Ramm was the star for this incredibly assured and most musical performance, redolent of Steven Isserlis in his youth!
Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have given us a Prokofiev season to relish here, reminding us of the composer’s melodic gifts, his flair when writing for orchestra and his good humour. The darker undercurrent beneath these pieces has also been fully explored, revealing Prokofiev in all his guises – occasionally rash, but often deeply profound. It has been a pleasure to be part of the experience.