Kirill Karabits bows out with an emotional, dramatic swansong, plus the best of May’s classical concerts

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Published Time: 16.05.2024 - 14:40:22 Modified Time: 16.05.2024 - 14:40:22

It was a fitting farewell for the Ukrainian conductor who has transformed the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra over the past 15 years Mark Allan Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Lighthouse Poole ★★★★☆When it comes to bold concert programming, it’s not necessarily the London orchestras that lead the way

It was a fitting farewell for the Ukrainian conductor who has transformed the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra over the past 15 years

: Mark Allan

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Lighthouse Poole ★★★★☆

When it comes to bold concert programming, it’s not necessarily the London orchestras that lead the way. Back in the 1980s and 90s it was Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; for the past 15 years it’s been the Ukrainian chief conductor of the BSO Kirill Karabits who’s often set the pace, unveiling fascinating works by composers from the ex-Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, that most of us had barely heard of. And like Rattle, he charmed and cajoled his audience into following him.

So Karabits’s last concert as chief conductor in the orchestra’s home base was bound to be an emotional occasion. There was a packed audience at the Lighthouse, which gave him a standing ovation before he’d conducted a note.  At the end someone pressed a generous bouquet into his hand – which Karabits, in a nice gesture, passed on to violist Jacoba Gale, who was retiring after 44 years.

There were no Eastern European discoveries in this concert, just a series of familiar masterpieces, conducted by Karabits in a way that reminded us why he’s been one of the finest (and curiously underrated) chief conductors in the UK. There were some sly nods to his Ukrainian loyalties: the programme contained the evergreen 3rd Piano Concerto by Prokofiev, who was born in the Donbas, and the soloist Alexander Gavryluk was born in Ukraine.

Before this came the Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin, the ballet by Béla Bartók that lacerates one’s feelings and one’s ears with its nightmare vision of urban violence. It seemed especially lacerating on this occasion, the bass drum and xylophone and piano sounding positively diabolical –though Karabits made sure we felt the sweetness of those moments when human feeling enters the scene.

There was more diabolism in Prokofiev’s concerto, this time tinged with gleeful humour. Gavryluk gave a huge, romping performance, bursting with personality and responsive to the unexpected moments of intimacy. Just occasionally he seemed overwhelmed by the orchestra’s sheer exuberance. Balance can be a problem in the Lighthouse’s super-bright acoustic.

For Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony the orchestra had to find a different, pitilessly austere sound, and an unremittingly intense world of feeling – which they did, magnificently. As he has done so often in the past on that same platform, Karabits displayed an unerring sense of pacing, a sense of how to place the shattering climaxes and the occasional wan sunbeam of hope and optimism to maximum effect. He was helped by eloquent solo playing, above all the pathetic, lost sound of oboist Edward Kay in the slow movement, and the sweet tone of the orchestra’s leader Amyn Merchant in the first, shining out amidst the tragedy.

Impressive though it was, this performance would have made a somewhat grim farewell. To leave us in better spirits Karabits and the BSO offered something beautiful but also mysterious: the Farewell Serenade by fellow Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov, a piece whose ineffable gentleness, beautifully played by the orchestra, came as a healing balm.

The BSO and Kirill Karabits perform Voices from the East, a celebration of music from Eastern Europe, at the Royal Festival Hall London SE1 on 19 May southbankcentre.co.uk

: Paul Marc Mitchell

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, St Martin-in-the-Fields ★★★★☆

Since it was launched back in 1989 by John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has revealed the music of the post-French Revolutionary period in all its bright colours and fervent romanticism. It’s now tackling the nine symphonies of the most revolutionary composer of them all, Ludwig van Beethoven, performing them in the dazzling St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square.   

However, it was not Eliot Gardiner on the podium. He’s not been seen in public since he allegedly lost his temper and punched soloist William Thomas after a performance at Berlioz Festival last August. Since then the orchestra’s young associate conductor Dinis Sousa has stepped in to cover, and it is he who is conducting for this five-day series. But could he find the fire and depth of his one-time mentor? 

The signs at this opening concert were that he can – and will – with one caveat. It was a gloriously optimistic affair, with three works all in C major, a shrewd move as it gave the evening a special colour, radiant and confident. The first piece was an overture from a ballet about Prometheus bringing fire to mankind – a “Beethovenian” theme if there ever was one; then came his astonishing First Symphony, and finally the rarely-heard Mass in C major.   

Sousa’s rhythmic drive soon became evident. He launched the very first chord of the overture to Prometheus with a gesture like a batsman aiming at the boundary, and the explosion that resulted made us jump out of our collective skins. 

In the First Symphony, there was beautiful elegance while in the Mass, pathos and anguish entered the picture. Like Gardiner, Sousa is keenly aware of the meaning of words of the Mass. He made sure the Monteverdi Choir – rich and full-blooded in sound as always – caught the pleading quality of “miserere nobis” (have mercy upon us), and they found an especially harsh sound for “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” (and was crucified also for us). 

The orchestral players gilded these moments with their plaintive descending phrases. Sousa was fortunate to have in the front of the choir four soloists – Lucy Crowe, Alice Coote, Allan Clayton and bass William Thomas – who were as individually fine, and beautifully blended, as any quartet I can remember in recent years. 

My quibble would be that though the performances brilliantly caught Beethoven’s urgency, Sousa did tend to drive the music rather hard. Let’s hope as the series unfolds Beethoven’s Olympian spaciousness will come to the fore, as well as his tender lyricism.

The ORR’s Beethoven symphony series continues until 18 May stmartin-in-the-fields.org

BBCSO/Brabbins, Barbican ★★★★☆

The centenary this year of Luigi Nono’s birth is not being celebrated as widely as the radical Venetian composer deserves, though the challenges of any such undertaking are easy to see. A couple of decades ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra might well have devoted one of its famed annual monographic composer weekends to an exploration of Nono’s music, but in place of such three-day festivals it now offers single Total Immersion days: even so, it still shied away from an all-Nono event, packaging him instead as part of an Italian Radicals programme featuring four composers.

If that sounds more like a paddle than complete immersion, Sunday’s events represented excellent programming. Nono and two other composers born in the 1920s, Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio, were put in the spotlight alongside their slightly older contemporary Luigi Dallapiccola. Through film, a concert with Guildhall School musicians and talks by Jonathan Cross (professor of musicology at Christ Church, Oxford) and Harriet Boyd-Bennett (associate professor or music at Nottingham University), the day offered a rare exploration of the leading figures who shaped Italian music after the second World War.

Theirs was a politicised world, and they were socially as well as musically radical. But none was more politically engaged than Nono, whose Canti di vita e d’amore lay at the heart of the evening’s main concert by the BBCSO. All Nono’s works are a reaction to human suffering, yet all his music ends in some sort of hope. The first of these three “songs” with orchestra commemorates Hiroshima and opens explosively; featuring four timpanists and a battery of other heavy percussive hardware, the burden is orchestral but the excellent soloists Anna Dennis (soprano) and John Findon (tenor) held their own. Dennis was searingly intense in the unaccompanied middle movement evoking the Algerian resistance and was joined hauntingly by Findon in the final love song.

The other highlight was a chance to hear music by Maderna, a great figure of Italian modernism and indeed a former guest conductor of the BBCSO. His Oboe Concerto No 3 (1973) was his last work, and perhaps hindsight allows us to hear its upwardly floating textures as valedictory. Yet a playful opening as the solo oboe pipes out high notes is echoed in more subdued fashion at the close. Nicholas Daniel was superb, catching the work’s whimsical fantasy, and the orchestra’s shimmering sea of pointillist delicacy was beautifully controlled by the conductor Martyn Brabbins.

Relating to his opera Ulisse, Dallapiccola’s Three Questions With Two Answers is an imposing orchestral edifice that despite a final, unanswered question finds its own resolution. A little earnest, perhaps, it still represents serialism at its most lyrical and Italian — all the composers featured were, in one way or another, connected to the opera house.

Berio could hardly have been represented without one of his solo Sequenzas (here Sequenza IXc, an arrangement for bass clarinet, given a growlingly sonorous performance by Thomas Lessels) or his celebrated Sinfonia. Radical in 1968, the Sinfonia has in some aspects not aged well, but it flowed strongly under Brabbins. Its centrepiece, a reupholstering of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony and some other musical landmarks, remains undeniably brilliant and drew a tour de force from the BBC Singers. JA

This concert will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on July 1, and will be available for 30 days on BBC Sounds

Game Music Festival, Southbank Centre ★★☆☆☆

: Lukasz Rajchert


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