After a long gap, Prokofieff returned to writing symphonies towards the end of the Second World War. The first fruit of this new phase of his work was the Fifth, one of his richest and most deservedly popular orchestral works, a massive panorama of epic, almost cinematic power, filled to the brim with broad melodies and memorable outbursts of orchestral fantasy. This piece is often performed in the concert-hall and has been many times recorded.
It was sketched in the summer of 1944, as the Red Army was finally sweeping Hitler’s invading forces backwards into Germany. Understandably this was a time of great hope for all Soviet citizens, as well as for the rest of the allied world. There was a widespread longing for a new world-order to emerge from all the chaos and destruction. Prokofieff himself spoke of his new symphony as ‘showing the triumph of the human spirit’.
At the same time there is much about the Fifth that is highly personal and even intimate. Afterwards Prokofieff described how he worked on this piece in a little hut in a country retreat to the east of Moscow. From his window all he could see was a field and the forest and ‘this aided concentration’.
The Fifth has four movements. The first, measured and sometimes nostalgic, is close in style to the historical panoramas of Prokofieff’s opera ‘War and Peace’. Then comes a sour and brilliant scherzo reminiscent of the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The grand mood of the opening returns in the almost Hollywood splendour of the slow movement. And in the last movement Prokofieff pulls off one of his favourite tricks, music that seems to get faster and faster and wilder and wilder.
Note by Gerard McBurney