When reviewers describe a work as “enigmatic” or “elusive” I always imagine that it’s either a smoke screen for personal distaste, or an oblique admission that they can’t really get a handle on it (there but for the grace of God…). I’m afraid that, in the case of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, I’m forced to employ the first adjective for the second reason. 

Prokofiev

The work is generally regarded as his finest symphony – a view I don’t resile from – but Prokofiev’s music has a habit of producing lyrical green shoots only to have them destroyed by sudden curdling, even violent, sonorities.  These jarring contrasts seem even more extreme in this symphony.

The work begins with a sort of belligerent splutter with muted strings depicting intense loneliness, soon reinforced by the woodwinds and subsequent threatening outbursts thudded out by tuba and bass. I mention this because these incidents spectacularly demonstrate what a superb instrument Vasily Petrenko is bequeathing his successor as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic. While he didn’t have quite the challenge...