PROM 42: The Bournemouth Symphony’s Rather Inconsistent Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 42 Janáček, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: Sunwook Kim (piano); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.8.2013 (CC)

Janáček:  Sinfonietta
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3 in D, Op. 29, “Polish”

The programming at this year’s Proms has generally been imaginative and successful (the Sitar Concerto Prom, No. 39, notwithstanding). This one, too, worked well. The juxtaposition of the famous Janáček Sinfonietta and Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was stimulating, even if it made for a slightly long first half. Kiev-born Kirill Karabits, the Bournemouth orchestra’s Principal Conductor, is clearly an intensely music conductor.

The wall of brass at the back of the orchestra lent an impressive visual aspect to the opening fanfares of the 1926 Sinfonietta. However, the impression of the performance was actually that of neatness rather than grandeur, an interesting approach that pointed towards Karabits’ generally scaled-down approach to the entire score. There is a nightmarish section just prior to the return of the opening fanfares, right at the end of the work that was decidedly tame here. The difficult Andante found the ensemble rather shaky, but far less pardonable was that the music was robbed of its edge. In short, the performance was not raw enough. One can perhaps pardon the ultra-high violins a touch of scrappiness (there is one particular passage that is notoriously difficult); but it was the central Moderato that held the least convincing playing. The orchestra did not seem to resonate with the music’s very individual mode of utterance. Perhaps the finest movement was the active fourth, the Allegretto. This was a decidedly mixed performance overall, but generally tending to the unsatisfactory.

The Beethoven Third Concerto was given by Sunwook Kim, who won the Leeds Competition in 2006 at the age of 18. No complaints technically, but it was a rather strange account that seemed intent on mapping the mood of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto onto the Third. The characteristic dynamism of Beethoven’s C minor music was largely played down or even absent. The brisk tempo of the first movement – definitely two in a bar – seemed itself to detract from the seriousness of intent, even enabling the music to register as rather breezy: the entire orchestral exposition was underpowered. It was nice to hear hard-stick timpani though. Kim’s playing was good but had little of the special about it. Technically adept, it was only in the cadenza (Beethoven’s own) that Kim demonstrated any core of strength at all. The central Largo still found soloist, conductor and orchestra at a disconnect with the score. Kim’s rather untidy first statement of the Rondo theme was unrepresentative – this was his best movement, fleet and fluent with a distinct Haydnesque element to the coda that came as a delightful surprise. Too little too late, though.

It’s always good to hear the earlier Tchaikovsky symphonies. The so-called “Polish” (1875) shares with Nos. 1 and 2 a delicious sense of melodic invention as well as an ongoing sense of discovery and freshness. Certainly all these traits were pointed up in this performance. The orchestra seemed far more at home in this five-movement symphony, sustaining the opening Introduzione well before imbuing the Allegro brillante with a real sense of the triumphal. More, there was an underlying sense of lyricism throughout the entire piece. The orchestra excelled, particularly the characterful woodwind in the second movement, Alla tedesca; later, the cellos showed just how eloquent they could be. It was interesting that Karabits started the slow(er) movement, marked Andante elegiaco, while the audience was still a-rustling; luckily it did not take long for the music to cast its spell. Karabits did the same thing with the wispy Scherzo that follows, playing scant regard to the audience noise, instead delivering the music with a quicksilver grace. The finale (a Tempo di polacca) was the crowning glory, including a perfectly pointed fugato. It was this symphony that made the evening worthwhile, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Colin Clarke