A Russian Spectacular from Karabits and the Royal Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Borodin, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Alexei Volodin (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London 20.3.2013 (RB)

BorodinPrince Igor Overture
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1 ‘Winter Daydreams’

Kirill Karabits has been principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for four seasons and has developed a considerable international reputation as one of the most exciting and dynamic young conductors around. For this concert he was joined by the pianist, Alexei Volodin, for this all Russian programme.

The concert opened with Borodin’s overture to Prince Igor, which the composer never actually committed to paper. Borodin was fortunate in having played the piece to Glazunov on the piano and the latter then proceeded to use Borodin’s notes and his memory of that performance to sketch out the overture. The opening on the strings was very assured and there were some lovely warm textures from the inner strings in particular. The various transitions in tempo were well managed and Karabits did a good job in bringing out the breadth and sweep of the music. Some of the entries from the brass and woodwind were a little untidy at the beginning although Laurence Davies did an excellent job with the horn solo. The final coda brought the piece to an exhilarating conclusion.

With the arrival of Alexei Volodin for Prokofiev’s wonderful Third Piano Concerto, the performances all seemed to go up a notch. Volodin has a superb technique and he attacked Prokofiev’s virtuoso piano figurations with aplomb in the opening movement. He was highly responsive to the shifts in mood and his playing was in turn playful, brutish, satirical and powerful. The fingerbending non legato passage was brilliantly executed while orchestra and soloist managed to stay completely in sync for the final exhilarating piu mosso. I wondered if Volodin might have made a little more of the grotesque elements in the gavotte section but this is a very minor quibble. Karabits brought an easy grace to the dance elements (another gavotte) at the beginning of the second movement while Volodin brought a veiled quality to the music in his introductory passage. All the variations were vividly characterised and I was impressed not only with Volodin’s handling of the dizzying pyrotechnics and his range of tone colour and projection, but also with Karabits’ attention to detail and balance and his flair for the dramatic elements in the score. The partnership continued for the final Allegro with Volodin bringing bite to the spiky opening and Karabits and the RPO bringing out the parody in the score. Karabits and the RPO were highly responsive to Volodin’s use of rubato and flexibility of phrasing in the big tune and the climax was well handled. The final coda was a tour de force with Volodin powering his way through the cadenzas and conductor and orchestra bringing out the brilliance of the orchestral writing before the thrilling conclusion. As an encore Volodin played Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D major: his tone was a little brash and forceful at the beginning – he was still no doubt still in the world of Prokofiev – but as he relaxed into the piece there was some lovely lyricism and textural layering.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony was written in 1867 and was one of his earliest orchestral works. It owes a debt to Mendelssohn and Schumann in particular and some of the movements have descriptive titles. The first movement entitled, ‘Reveries of a Winter Journey’ also seems to have resonances of Beethoven and I was struck by Karabits’ control and handling of the motivic relationships. Texture, shading and dynamics were beautifully controlled and Karabits and the RPO found room to allow the music to breathe and unfold naturally. The RPO strings managed to achieve a gorgeous, luminous sheen at the beginning of the second movement, entitled, ‘Land of Desolation, Land of Mists’. The principal oboe melody was nicely shaped and Karabits did a good job in injecting an easy flow and momentum into the music. There was some lovely rich playing from the cellos before the climax to the movement which had a powerful, elemental quality. Mendelssohn’s music was not far away in the elfin scherzo, which was feathery light while conductor and orchestra seemed to find the dreamy lyricism at the heart of the trio section. The finale of this piece does not always work for me but it did in this performance. The voicing of the intricate counterpoint was superbly executed and the episodic elements in the piece all seemed to come together in a convincing and compelling way before the rousing coda.

Karabits and the RPO played an encore by Glinka before standing to acknowledge the applause of the audience. Karabits is clearly a conductor to be reckoned with and I will be fascinated to watch how his career develops from here.

Robert Beattie