Inside Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony

Philip Clark Tue 5th January 2016

Kirill Karabits tells Philip Clark why he started his Prokofiev cycle at the end

Kirill Karabits and I are attempting to march through Sergey Prokofiev’s Symphony No 7 chronologically – each movement, each moment of each movement, in order – but the restless nature of Prokofiev’s material keeps defying our best intentions. The opening movement’s second theme reappears in the finale where you least expect it, and my suggestion that a blast of oompah brass in Prokofiev’s toy-town second-movement scherzo could be a puppet military march brings us back to the finale once again. 

‘In the finale you hear the marching of Pioneers!’ Karabits explains. ‘I remember from my own schooldays in Ukraine, which is where Prokofiev grew up, there were different levels of achievement at school before you could join the Party. At first you were an Octoberist and wore a little star on your uniform. And then, when you became a Pioneer, you could wear a red bow tie. A proud moment! Each club had its own march and here Prokofiev, nearing the end of his life, is recalling something important from childhood. But he’s not mocking or being sarcastic. This is an honest and innocent memory.’ 

And around such memories is Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony built. This elusive and inscrutable score might feel an improbable starting point for this new cycle of Prokofiev symphonies led by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor. For anyone opting to play it safe, the familiar Classical Symphony or ever-popular Fifth Symphony would be the symphonies of choice; but, paired with Prokofiev’s mighty Third Symphony, Karabits makes the case that all Prokofievian life is paraded inside his last symphony, completed a year before he died in 1953. By the end of our conversation, I wonder why any conductor beginning a Prokofiev cycle would not start with his Seventh Symphony. 

‘You could call it a farewell symphony,’ Karabits tells me. ‘It’s a symphony that looks back over his life and childhood – an old man’s dream of childhood. But he’s also saying farewell. Look at the ending – it’s just a heartbeat that slows down and then stops. Like Bartók’s late-period Third Piano Concerto, at the end of his life Prokofiev is returning to very simple musical material. But this simplicity, of course, has a dual meaning. Shostakovich is a realist. He looks at the world and tells you what he thinks. He shows you the blood. But Prokofiev has his own world – a world of fairy-tales, of giants, of childlike fantasies – and that matters first, and only through that prism do we see the realities of the wider world.’ 

The composer’s last few years were, Karabits explains, acutely painful. His health was failing, his personal relationships were strained and those repeated accusations of formalism from the regime stung. Opening the score, I ask how this back-story impacts interpretatively moment by moment, note-on-note. ‘You must take distance,’ he insists. ‘You cannot play Prokofiev in the realistic way you approach Shostakovich. The second theme of the first movement, which Prokofiev brings back at the end of the symphony, is “sad” music written in a major key. But you can’t conduct it telling people “this is sad music”. It just has to be what it is. It can’t be too [Karabits makes his right hand shake – the archetypal conductorly espressivo gesture], but nor can it be too dry. Yes, it’s warm, but Prokofiev, I think, is observing his own thoughts and feelings – which are real enough, and yet he’s apart from them.’ 

Prokofiev, Karabits thinks, is evoking the vast open rural heartland of Ukraine. This theme builds from the soil upwards and will eventually touch the stars – clearly the composer is rooting himself in the landscape of his forefathers. ‘This second theme is especially touching after the symphony’s first theme,’ he says, ‘which is very slightly sentimental but with a purity that allows you to build emotions around it yourself. Like many Prokofiev melodies, it has an endless feeling – a melody that could, in theory, carry on into infinity – which makes it difficult to phrase. Whenever you think it’s coming to an end, the bass takes over and then the upper strings join again and it repeats. This endless melody has to keep moving, and yet needs an awareness of structure and architecture.’ 

‘The music starts ticking towards death like a stopwatch has been started…and yet tries to resist the inevitable’

The first theme ends in C sharp minor but a miraculous harmonic sleight of hand slithers a semitone higher to D major. The coda picks up on the major/minor ambiguity implicit in the second theme: the movement ends in C sharp major but underpinned by minor harmonies – ‘you can’t escape your destiny’ is how Karabits explains the harmonic symbolism. Prokofiev’s scherzo is an antidote to the disarmingly intricate harmonic machinations of the first movement. ‘It’s a waltz! And by the end of the scherzo, you’ve forgotten the first movement. Tchaikovsky often uses waltzes in peculiar situations – think of his late symphonies – and here Prokofiev is simply reminding us of happy music. Except, of course, you can’t absolutely forget the context of the opening movement. The string theme which opens the third movement, marked Andante espressivo, reminds us of the first movement. Prokofiev is remembering his memories.’ 

The mention of Tchaikovsky prompts me to comment that the two men could hardly have had a more polarised approach to symphonic form. ‘Tchaikovsky makes his themes fight,’ Karabits agrees, ‘but Prokofiev never does. When, in the finale, the second theme from the first movement reappears, Prokofiev puts it into a new context but there’s no conflict. 

‘The finale opens with a side of Prokofiev we haven’t yet heard. After the flowing melodies of the other three movements, suddenly it’s Haydn. This is the Prokofiev of theClassical Symphony again. There are staccatos and non-staccatos; there are sudden grace notes and triplet semiquavers, details of articulation that need to be realised with great precision.’ The playful, fantasy-like tone of the symphony has often led it to be described as a symphony for children. But the final few pages are obviously, Karabits feels, the work of a man about to meet his maker: ‘The music starts ticking towards death like a stopwatch has been started, and yet that theme from the first movement keeps returning, as though trying to resist the inevitable. It’s genuinely a shock when the music simply stops.’ Karabits continues: ‘Later Prokofiev added a revised “joke” ending where his ghost returns, like in Petrushka. I include it as an alternative ending on the recording. But that original ending never fails to leave audiences stunned.’ 

As we wrap up, we talk about Prokofiev plundering a score he’d written for Eugene Onegin for this symphony and I wonder if Karabits knows more about the specifics. He shrugs. ‘Look, he was a proud man and liked to show off. If Prokofiev liked something he’d written he’d use it in an opera, a symphony, a suite for jazz band – he’d use it everywhere!’ 

The historical view 

Igor B Maslowski – ‘Letter from France’, Gramophone, July 1954 

‘From the musical angle, it is a “light” symphony – it suggests Prokofiev parodying his own music – but it is very melodious, lyric and superbly orchestrated.’ 

Dmitry Kabalevsky – Diary entry, c1950 

‘All his energies were directed to the one aim, of saving for his work all the strength he had left. At times it seemed as if he knew his malady would defeat him in the end and he was deliberately hurrying to get all his ideas down on paper before it was too late.’ 

Gramophone, June 1955 – Andrew Porter on Ormandy and Malko 

‘The first movement is not allegro but moderato, like that of Shostakovich’s Tenth but much richer in its material. The broad second subject is magnificent…Ormandy gives the better-rehearsed and more convincingly executed performance.’ 

More on Prokofiev...

Feature Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf – which recording is best?

Review Prokofiev's Symphony No 7 – Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Gramophone.

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