Soloist: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
The Mariinsky Orchestra
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Symphony No 6 in E Flat Minor, Op. 111
Piano Concerto in G Major
Piano Concerto (for left hand) in D Major
Prokofiev composed his Sixth Symphony between 1945 and 1947. Its first performance took place on 11 October 1947 in Leningrad. The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky.
Unlike Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, a symphony of victorious triumph which is frequently compared with Borodin’s Bogatyr opus, the Sixth is an incredibly dramatic work, fuelled by pain and suffering, mournful memories of the war years and thoughts about life and death. In calling it a symphonic elegy in memory of victims of the Second World War, Prokofiev’s Sixth is frequently compared with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth.
In the centre of the symphony’s first movement there is a majestic funereal procession. Perhaps Tchaikovsky “dictated” to Prokofiev the heart-wrenching almost lyrical theme of this movement? The gloomy images of war that bring to mind Los Caprichos by Goya encroach in the expansively Russian songful Largo. Sviatoslav Richter called the life-loving Prokofiev the Mozart of the 20th century. Was it not Mozart who “gave a hint” to Prokofiev for the finale of the Sixth, with its flirtatious first theme? But at all times we can feel the hand of Prokofiev, its shy caress, its steel muscles and its warrior-like grasp. And the sudden burst of fire in the coda of the finale – seemingly playful and full of life – comes with a dismal reed-pipe (the same second theme from the first movement), the steel-like tread of death-fuelled chords... The sunny Prokofiev showed us a dark and charred sun.
Ravel composed his concerti – his last major works – in 1929-1931, a time when his strength was gradually abating due to severe illness. But there is no trace of that in the music of Piano Concerto No 1 in G Major, about which the composer said “This is a concerto in the exact sense of the word: it was written in the style of concerti by Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I believe that the music of a concerto can be fun and dazzling without claiming to have much depth or dramatic effect... in my Concerto there are certain elements borrowed from jazz, but in moderation.”
The crack of the whip with which the first movement of the Concerto begins immediately introduces the world to the melodies of Basque folk dance – their energetic rhythm and the varicoloured timbres (the piano is initially an orchestral instrument) contrasts with the much more concentrated songful second theme that is commenced with the piano solo. In this we can recognise the composer’s beloved “Spanish melancholy”, but we can also readily hear jazz notes, similar to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (which Ravel highly praised). The themes are broadly exposed, one following another, blending into an impetuous toccata development and an enchanting and energetic coda. The slow Adagio passage is the work’s lyrical centre, the Concerto’s culmination: the piano solo begins an extended instrumental aria that is taken up by the orchestra, enlivened with melodic designs and ornamentation as well as diverse mixes of timbre. The finale is, once again, a toccata – this time grotesque, at times reminiscent of a tense and impulsive tarantella in the jazz style.
The Second Concerto in D Minor for the Left Hand was composed at almost the same time as the First. “It’s day and night. Freedom and constraint. Light-heartedness and despair,” Ravel wrote in one of his books, comparing the concerti. The second concerto was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right hand during World War I (Sergei Prokofiev and Richard Strauss were also asked to write for the pianist).
... Amidst the extremely evil murkiness of the low strings (cellos and double basses) we can hear the gloomy voice of the bass bassoon. The immense cadence of the piano develops the first theme in the rhythm of a saraband – a triumphant and ritualistic dance. The second lyrical theme shades the bleak tread, sounding like a happy recollection. The sudden intrusion in the development is like a hallucination – the themes are distorted to the extent they are unrecognisable, the mechanical aggressive movement with its occasional allusions to jazz appearing as symbols of fate. Again the rhythm of the saraband returns and heralds the dramatic reprise, the central part of which is taken by yet another cadence by the soloist. Its improvised freedom and full sound qualities are staggering – it is hard to believe that the music was written for just the one left hand! In the final bars of the coda it’s as if the sun appears for a moment – the mournful passages are not forgotten, but life goes on – and surely the unprecedented achievements of the one-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein attest to that!