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Kochanovsky's powerful Prokofiev 6 in Hamburg

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Bachtrack by Alexander Hall, 21 April 2023
Some symphonies simply do not leap out at you, are not crowd-pleasers and take their time before opening up their secrets. Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 6 in E minor is one of them. As one observer commented at the time of its 1947 premiere, the start is like the turning of a key in a rusty old lock. What lies behind this mighty iron-framed door? 
Stanislav Kochanovsky, making his debut with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, had many of the answers. In particular, his ear for the deeply sinister undertones that pervade the opening movement created a compelling narrative of nightmarish sequences and grotesquerie. Bassoons and tuba duetting like a piece of clockwork, marking out the remaining time of a hellish existence (a feature which Prokofiev repeats in the concluding Vivace), plangent oboes like spectres in the night lamenting the dead, piccolo set against horn in a fine example of the composer’s ability to create chilling contrasts, and double basses shuddering in anticipation of terror just around the corner. Capping it all, a thrusting climax with tam-tam, piano, harp and full divisions of heavy brass, all effectively marshalled by Kochanovsky and his players with precision and power, enough to wrench any soul from its moorings. 
Banned just a year after its premiere for being anti-Soviet, this symphony has long been considered intractable. Any personal meditation on suffering and loss, which is at the heart of it, had to fall foul of the prevailing mood of enforced optimism. Yet, as the composer opined at the time, “each of us has wounds that cannot be healed”.
The pain speaks through the great expanse of the central Largo, beginning with a collective wailing and gnashing of teeth. Above the fray, Prokofiev gives the listener a remarkable glimpse of perhaps a life beyond, when harp and celesta offer  moments of consolation, picked up and amplified by the high-lying upper strings almost immediately. Overriding it all, eloquence in desolation, as Kochanovsky lifted a dark veil to expose yet more darkness within.
How to make sense of the chirpy Finale? Rather like Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the regime required rejoicing. Of a sort, that is. Here Prokofiev tries to put a brave face on it, the very lively pace set by Kochanovsky accentuating the jauntiness, wiping away the tears and shrugging off the last vestiges of pain from the slow movement. Yet it is a brave face that still carries a grimace on the outside, the work experiencing one of the most unheroic E flat major endings imaginable.
The first half belonged entirely to the young Dutch piano duo partnership of Lucas and Arthur Jussen. It was almost as though Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos had been written specially for them. The opening movement teems with all kinds of melodies, textures and mercurial shifts in tonal colour. Here, it was like watching two boys pulling out from a gigantic box of toys one brightly-coloured bauble after another, all managed with lightning precision and breathtaking coordination. The marvels of prestidigitation were most apparent in the dashing Finale, but it was the exquisite French elegance of the melodic lines, apparent in the composer’s homage to his favourite composer Mozart at the start of the Larghetto, that impressed equally. And what was Messiaen’s Turangalîla doing amidst the jazz-like syncopations of the concluding Allegro molto? Well, folks, it was Poulenc that got there first.