Enthralling Performances from Karabits and Lewis

Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms: Paul Lewis (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 12.4.2013. (RJ)

Schubert: Overture: Rosamunde
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F major
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1` in D minor

It may be celebrating its 120th birthday this year, but the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra clearly has no wish to live in the past. Instead it has branded itself “the orchestra for the 21st century”, suggesting that it is determined to embrace the new. That may be the reason why its musicians chose as their principal conductor someone who had only just turned 24 when the new millennium dawned.

Yet on first glance their latest concert was firmly rooted in the 19th century and the Austro-German tradition. The traditional overture-concerto-symphony format was abandoned on this occasion, however, with the concerto following the symphony. The concert split into two distinct halves: the first joyful and high-spirited; the second much darker in tone. The layout of the orchestra was unusual in that the cellos and double-basses were positioned on the conductor’s left behind the first violins. This arrangement may have worked well in the first half, but in the second half, hidden behind the piano, the second violins looked isolated.

Kirill Karabits brought a suitably good-humoured Viennese feel to the Schubert overture with a stately opening in C minor followed by a quiet lilting melody forming the introduction. Then it was into the major key and a lively, almost boisterous, first theme followed by a quieter more lyrical subject – all played with commendable clarity and bouts of dramatic bravura.

People tend to compare Beethoven’s Eighth Symphonyunfavourablywith his Seventh,composed at more or less the same time. Maybe they feel it should be grander. It is actually his second shortest symphony – “my little symphony in F” he called it to distinguish it from the longer Pastoral in the same key. Whatever problems Beethoven was suffering from at the time, they are certainly not reflected in this symphony and Kirill Karabits bent over backwards to make this a high-spirited performance. There was no lengthy introduction but we were propelled straight into the action and caught up with the infectious enthusiasm of the playing. Yet clarity was never sacrificed and the themes in the development were handled well.

This air of levity spilled over into the second movement with some delightful sounds, including one where the woodwind accompany the strings. There is no proper slow movement as such in this work, though the minuet of the third slowed down the action somewhat, and one suspected Beethoven was acting tongue in cheek in reviving a musical form he had long since discarded. But with the finale we were up to speed again and Karabits kept his musical forces on a tight rein as he guided them through the twists and turns of the piece and the lengthy and complex coda. This may be Beethoven’s “little symphony”, but there was nothing small about this performance.

After the interval the mood darkened and the audience were confronted with one of Brahms’ most personal works. Ending a concert with a concerto is still considered a bit unusual, but his Piano Concerto No 1, of course, was originally conceived as a symphony and it was only later after the composer had wrestled with it that its eventual form emerged.

The work got off to an explosive start but a quiet lyrical melody intervened as if paving the way for the piano’s entrance. Paul Lewis’s subdued and thoughtful playing seemed very much in keeping with Brahms’ mood; he was still affected by the tragic loss of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. This feeling came over even better in the slow second movement where there were long passages for solo piano played with the utmost delicacy and calm, the elegiac atmosphere reinforced by pianissimos from the strings and woodwind. The finale was dramatic and vigorous in places but one felt that the pianist was attempting to apply the brakes lest the mood become overly ebullient. By the end of the concert some audience members confessed to being as emotionally drained as Paul Lewis seemed to be after giving his all in this momentous performance.

One wonders whether after exploring the Beethoven and Schubert repertoire in recent years he is now turning his attention to Brahms. This certainly seems to be the case with Kirill Karabits who plans to finish the orchestra’s next season (2013-14) with the complete Brahms symphonic cycle. I note that he opens the BSO season with a concert which juxtaposes Wagner with Rachmaninov (which is certainly unusual). Later on he conducts a concert of Britten and Shostakovich. Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony are other highlights of the season. There is no denying the excellent rapport between the Bournemouth players and their Ukrainian conductor, and news that his contract has been extended to 2016 is greatly to be welcomed. By then he’ll be approaching 40 and the BSO will be scanning the horizon for another rising young star.

Roger Jones