Epic Performances of Strauss and Schubert by Karabits and the BSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, R Strauss, Schubert: Sally Matthews (soprano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 26.3.2015. (RJ)

Beethoven:  Coriolan Overture
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs
Schubert: Symphony No 9 in C major “Great”

“It’s the most widely travelled orchestra in Britain,” one of the BSO’s Chair Sponsors informed  me with evident pride just before this concert began. Considering its current itinerary includes Cheltenham, Bristol,  Exeter and Portsmouth all in the space of less than a month (in addition to concerts at its home base in Poole) I saw no reason to challenge her assertion. Folk from all over the west of England have reason to be grateful to these itinerant musicians for affording them the chance to hear live orchestral music played to a high standard in their own backyards – so to speak.

 The programme was entitled Swansongs, though the Coriolan Overture hardly falls into this category having been composed twenty years before Beethoven’s death. However, it made for a good start to the concert with its momentous opening chords followed by a musical delineation of the general’s impetuous character. Kirill Karabits didn’t regard the overture merely as a warm-up, but imbued it with all the tension and drama that conductors tend to reserve for the more important works in a concert. Gradually, however, the contrasting pleading theme displaced the assertiveness of the opening and Karabits brought the work to a quiet, almost ghostly end.

 Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, however, fitted the theme of the concert perfectly being the composer’s final completed work and not premiered (by Kirsten Flagstad) until eight months after his death. In live concerts it is sometimes difficult to get the balance right between the lush  orchestration and the soprano part, a difficulty which can be circumvented in studio recordings. Fortunately Karabits got it just about right and Sally Matthews’ lovely voice blended perfectly with the instrumental music.  Singer and orchestra were as one in the ebb and flow of Frühling, the intensity of  which never faltered. The orchestra was carefully controlled during the stanzas of September but blossomed forth between them.  In Beim Schlafengehen there were two soloists – Miss Matthews and the leader of the orchestra, Amyn Merchant, whose exquisite and tender violin solo soared heavenward to thrilling effect. The orchestra had another chance to show its warm Straussian qualities in the introduction to Abendrot, and one could almost sense the chill in the air as the sun sank below the horizon. Sally Matthews was again quite superb singing with poise and imbuing the performance not so much with world-weariness as with a gentle acceptance of death.

 My only criticism is that the programme notes ought to have included the words of the Eichendorff and Hesse poems. (I note that the audience for Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality a few days earlier were supplied with the full text which, being in  English, was perhaps not so necessary.)

 Am I being a little too hard on the BSO’s marketing department if I point out that Schubert’s swansong was, in fact, Schwanengesang? It was certainly not his Ninth Symphony which concluded the concert and was actually composed  a few years before his death.  More so than any other of his symphonic works Schubert’s Ninth is on an epic scale and comparable to Beethoven’s Ninth, from which he quotes in the finale.

 Under Kirill Karabit’s  baton it received the epic treatment it deserved.  After the beguiling opening horn solo the conductor led us gently into the work with a relaxed account of the extended andante introduction, culminating in a masterful crescendo which led up to the rhythmic energy of the Allegro non troppo first theme. This is a lengthy movement, full of variety with themes which disappear only to reappear in a completely new guise. Yet under Karabits’ firm direction it never became unwieldy and ended magnificently with a slow triumphal restatement of the opening horn solo.  The slow movement was full of interest: a wonderful oboe solo, a serene interlude by the violins, magical woodwind playing and moments of high drama; and there was much to praise in the bouncy scherzo, not least  the lyrical central trio.  The conductor drove his musicians hard in the finale unleashing a whirlwind of elemental power and energy. But such is the respect that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have for their young Principal Conductor that they did not flinch from the tasks he demanded of them. Karabits and the BSO have to be heard to be believed.

 The Poole performance of this programme can be heard on the BBC i-player for the next few days.


Roger Jones

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