Compelling Royal Festival Hall day of unfamiliar Eastern Europe music from Kirill Karabits’s BSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Valeriy Sokolov (viola), Harutyun Chkolyan, Karen Sirakanyan (duduk/zurna), Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.5.2024. (CK)

Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall © Pete Woodhead

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh – Nagilar (Fairy Tales)
Nurymov – Symphony No.2
Garayev – Seven Beauties Suite

There was a lot of love in the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday. Three concerts in one day, and a good audience for all three: the hall was not full by any means, but not embarrassingly sparse either, and those who came contributed fully to the quality of the occasion. Bravos, cheers, catcalls, standing ovations: this was no politically correct nod to unfamiliar music, but an absorbing and frequently thrilling voyage into the unknown.

Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra presented plums from more than 60 works from Eastern Europe and Central Asia that they have shared with their audiences over the last 15 years (it is very good news that Karabits – rightly awarded an OBE for this achievement – will continue his Voices from the East programme as the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate). In conversation with Tom Service he explained his long-standing desire to expand the repertory and to explore the cultural links between East and West: ‘The world becomes a magic place if you mix the unmixable.’ He named three Russian composers he sees as milestones on the journey: Shostakovich (much influenced by Mahler), Prokofiev (turned more towards France), and Khachaturian: he remarked that although the latter’s music would not be played, it is ‘here, in the air’: it is Khachaturian who ‘paved the way into the East’.

This first concert presented music by composers from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Fairy Tales captivated me at once with its beauty and strangeness: a baleful opening on lower strings, a propulsive rhythm, a ghostly floating web of sound on tuned percussion and marimba; a powerful climax, a passage as delicate and glistening as the opening of Gurre-Lieder – the music seemed to be constantly mutating, like a single organism in the deep, inflating and deflating. The majestic major-key ending on trumpets and trombones seemed to emerge organically from the orchestral tissue. Ravishing.

Throughout the day’s conversations between Karabits and Service there was an entertaining tension between Karabits’s intention of saying as little as possible, letting the music speak for itself, and Service’s missionary zeal in telling us anything that might help us to understand and appreciate it. In introducing Nurymov’s Second Symphony Karabits contented himself with pointing out the importance of bells in Russian music (they were, indeed, omnipresent throughout the day): and the importance of storytelling in Turkmeni culture – the music tells a particular story, but it is up to the listener to invent his own. Service managed to slip in a few nuggets – it was written in 1984, after the assassination of Gandhi, a plea for peace.

The symphony creates a world of drama and intensity in under 20 minutes. The common thread is a rocking figure on two notes which appears in many guises: mournful on bassoons and violas, rich and dark on the cellos, a powerful chant accelerating into a threatening march on the heavy brass, Shostakovich-like in its implacability. Then, in a moving passage like a release, the strings give it a more positive aspect: but the music turns tragic, monumental, doggedly minor, heroic, recalling the climactic outburst in the finale of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. The rocking theme returns as a chant for strings over a pp gong, and the symphony ends in darkness.

Garayev’s Seven Beauties Suite could become an instant classic: it begins with a gorgeously Romantic tapestry of sound – strings, harp, solo horn. I clearly lost my way – I counted eight Beauties – but what the heck: suffice it to say that there was one that could be slotted into the Nutcracker Suite without upsetting anyone, another with an entertainingly Spanish flavour, another where a flute disports itself over a habanera-like pizzicato on lower strings, another where the full orchestral panoply brings widescreen Khachaturian to mind (Spartacus, Gayaneh)… High time, surely, to stop trying to describe the music and to salute, whole-heartedly, Karabits and his orchestra for their skill, stamina and commitment in bringing these challenging pieces to such vivid life.

Kancheli – Styx
Terterian – Symphony No.3

I have previously reviewed these forces’ performance of Kancheli’s Styx for viola, chorus and orchestra in Poole on May 1st (review here). This time I was more aware of the role of the chorus – sometimes singing clusters of real beauty, sometimes flinging pebbles of sound, sometimes reduced to single syllables in single voices. The writing for solo viola, mediating between chorus and orchestra (Valeriy Sokolov, giving an outstanding and moving performance) is often full-bloodedly Romantic. Orchestrally, I was more aware of the discreetly bluesy edge the bass guitar gives to the lower strings; the polystylism – the piano sounding sometimes like a spinet, sometimes like an old musical box. Listening to Kancheli’s orchestra is like looking at a rock with different strata denoting different ages. Sudden extremes of dynamics – as at the end, where a sustained fortissimo nightmare suddenly ceases, leaving shreds of sound from the viola, and the dry sound of bows being scraped down strings. And then the final shriek, like a Big Bang. It was given a quite magnificent performance.

Styx was Kancheli’s farewell to two of his friends, Terterian and Schnittke: so it was good to hear music by the less familiar of the two. Karabits (who met Terterian as a child) advised us: ‘Better to know nothing about it. Let your emotions guide you.’ Good advice. I will only observe that a large orchestra – seven horns, two pianos, much percussion – is used very sparingly, though sometimes with great virtuosity; that what we hear is often sound rather than music; and that we seem constantly on the very edge of silence (‘Silence is pouring into this play’, wrote Samuel Beckett of Waiting for Godot, ‘like water into a sinking ship’). I don’t suppose I was the only one who jumped out of my seat when the pair of zurnas (double-reed pipes made from apricot wood) suddenly burst into sound like klaxons: and in the slow movement the whole hall was mesmerised by the artistry of soloists Harutyun Chkolyan and Karen Sirakanyan on duduks, as one of them maintained a drone for minutes on end in an extraordinary demonstration of circular breathing while the other played freely, lyrically, hauntingly. At the end they returned for an encore and were ecstatically received.

de Hartmann – Suite from La Fleurette Rouge
Anna Korsun – Terricone
Lyatoshinsky – Symphony No.4

Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall © Pete Woodhead

West, for this third concert, from Armenia and Georgia to Ukraine, where Karabits was born into a musical family before the end the Soviet era.  Ukraine is famous for its folk music, he said; so, for contrast, he had chosen three more symphonic, less ‘folky’ pieces. De Hartmann’s suite from La Fleurette Rouge (after an opening chord that instantly brought Siegfried’s death to mind) began with an airy trumpet solo over glinting woodwind, harps and percussion: more Western sounding than the preceding concert’s music. In the second movement a tune on violas and cellos developed into a wide-ranging melody and a magnificent, surging passage which had me thinking of Bantock’s Hebridean Symphony, and then into an ingratiating tune in waltz time. The third featured solemn, chorale-like brass, embellished by the harps, who later had an extended cadenza on their own, and a gentle melody for the cellos. After a brief, lively pizzicato movement, the suite concluded with a colourful dance that brought Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances to mind.

It is no accident that de Hartmann’s Suite has triggered associations with western European music: the same cannot be said of Anna Korsun’s extraordinary Terricone, a BSO commission. It begins as Kancheli’s Styx ended, though in the absence of a chorus it is the orchestral musicians who scream: the opening is sheer pandemonium, all the percussionists busy (one with a lion’s roar), trombones like air raid sirens. Four percussionists rotate large, shallow drums filled with gravel, or scrape violin bows against cymbals and other metal edges; the strings keep up an insect-like activity, like maggots squirming in decaying carrion; trumpets, trombones and tuba breathe into their mouthpieces. More screaming.

To what end? The title of the piece refers to man-made mountains of mining waste – slag heaps – that pepper the landscape of Korsun’s native Donbas region. She does not intend the music to be illustrative; but it is a powerful visual and aural experience. It brought to my mind mad King Lear’s paroxysm: ‘There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit: burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie!’

Our journey reached its end with the Fourth Symphony of the Ukrainian composer Boris Lyatoshinsky; and Kirill Karabits made it clear that it was a sombre end. It expresses the tension between light and darkness, fragility and brutality, and it brings no comfort: beauty does not find a way to overcome the darkness. It is written for our time, said Karabits: his people’s DNA is written into it. He did not need to be more explicit. It leaves us, he said, in a state of reflection and contemplation.

I made detailed notes on the music, but if you are still reading you have probably had enough of that. Battle is joined, and rejoined; brazen, dissonant fanfares are pitted against passages of great beauty; time and again I marvelled at the clarity of Karabits’s conducting in fiercely complex music. There was a standing ovation: Karabits acknowledged it with a smile and an occasional bow, or a gesture towards his thoroughbred orchestra; but mostly he stood still, his eyes lowered. Reflection and contemplation. I wondered what he was thinking, as the fate of his country hangs in the balance between Russia and the West. As in Poole a fortnight earlier, he and the orchestra offered us Valentin Silvestrov’s bittersweet Farewell Serenade as encore.

Though Lyatoshinsky’s symphony is a long way from triumphalism, these three concerts were a musical triumph for Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. And perhaps more than that. Somewhere in Testimony, Shostakovich remarks that the most important thing a Russian has is his memory: I think that this extraordinary day of music will remain in the memory-banks of its multi-national audience for a very long time.

Chris Kettle

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