Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra open our ears to Voices from the East

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Karabits, Kancheli, Balakirev: Alexander Malofeev (piano), Valeriy Sokolov (viola), Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor). Lighthouse, Poole, 1.5.2024. (CK)

Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Poole’s Lighthouse

Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1
Ivan Karabits – Concerto for Orchestra No.3 ‘Lamentations’
Giya Kancheli – Styx
Mily Balakirev – Islamey

An outstanding feature of Kirill Karabits’s long tenure with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (only their founder Sir Dan Godfrey served longer) has been his Voices from the East project: it is chiefly for this, and rightly, that he has been awarded an Honorary OBE. At the heart of this demanding concert were two substantial works from Georgia and Ukraine, both entirely new to me, and I expect to most of the audience.

First, though, an explosive start. Alexander Malofeev won the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians when he was 13; on Wednesday, a blond, boyish veteran of 22, he dispatched the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto as if it was the easiest thing in the world, jousting with the orchestra on more than equal terms. The extraordinary opening immediately had us hooked: a fortissimo roar as four horns throw down the gauntlet, the piano taking it up with pounding chords which prove to be the accompaniment of a world-bestriding tune in the orchestra. And then it vanishes, never to return. Malofeev seemed to have the right touch and tone for every mood: he was as impressive in the lyrical interludes as in thunderous double octaves. The orchestra matched him, with nice work in the Andante semplice from flute (Anna Pyne) and horn (Alex Willett). Dexterity, virtuosity, sensitivity – you name it: Malofeev had it all.

At the grandstanding conclusion the hall erupted: people got to their feet, cheering, stamping, some going to the front. For his encore, Malofeev rather anticlimactically morphed from a klaviertiger into a pet cat, giving us a dainty rendition of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The audience wanted more: he didn’t oblige, perhaps sensing that if he weakened he might have been kept playing all night.

The performance of the Concerto for Orchestra No.3 by Ivan Karabits, the conductor’s father, was quite a different matter. Its subtitle, Lamentations, indicates its purpose: to commemorate the tragic consequences of two man-made twentieth-century disasters – Stalin’s collectivization of Ukrainian farming, as a result of which seven million starved to death, and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It is a work of dignity, often of spareness, of quiet devastation.

The work is in two movements. The opening Largo begins almost eerily: a barely-audible tinkling, created by an instrument invented by Karabits with his son’s help: tiny bells woven into tresses of hair. A solo horn speaks into the near-silence, in tones of sadness and with a sense of a wide, open landscape; the rest of the brass add a wind-like susurration by blowing into their mouthpieces; a harp is heard, and eerie harmonics on a solo violin. All this seems to be an introduction to an anguished theme on violas, leading to the involvement of the full orchestra. The movement’s percussion-driven outbursts are like cries of pain; this is music of tragic and heroic temper, and of protest too.

Strings are to the fore as the Allegro gets under way, and the music is again tortured and angular: a bass tuba, bongos and other percussion intensify the mood. The sound winds down again to the little bells: then, in a move which has nothing distractingly theatrical about it, the lights dim, and the conductor walks to the piano for a bleak coda. The sounds around him are like pinpoints in the darkness: the ghostly bells, the brass blowing into mouthpieces again, a flute, a bassoon, a violin, a gong… With a low held note on lower strings, the piece fades to black.

I found the performance extraordinarily moving; I would have done so, I think, even without the contemporary resonances of a suffering Ukraine, and a Ukrainian conductor. I sensed a special warmth in the audience’s reception, and in the response of the orchestra too.

What to say, after that, about Giya Kancheli’s Styx? It’s a major work, for solo viola (it was written for Yuri Bashmet), large orchestra and chorus; its dimensions are similar to those of Belshazzar’s Feast or Rachmaninov’s The Bells. Its music is powerful, experimental, enigmatic: comparisons are unhelpful, but the nearest in my experience would be Schnittke. I cannot hope to do it justice, other than to say that it was magnificently performed – not least by Valeriy Sokolov, whose solo viola was genuinely lyrical: he is meant to be a pivotal Charon-figure, mediating between orchestra and chorus, the past and the present, the living and the dead, but in practice he sometimes seemed crushed between clashing choral and orchestral rocks. Caught between two great forces is not a comfortable place to be.

The text is as enigmatic as the music: but I was interested in Kancheli’s choice of some lines from Time’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The speech takes a couple of minutes of clock time, but it bridges a gap of sixteen years in the play. In some of Birtwistle’s music time is elastic, non-linear: we are trapped inside the music until the composer sees fit to release us. ‘Normal’ time doesn’t apply. Being ‘inside’ Styx felt like that: trapped in a timeless ritual.

After all this, the orchestral version of Mily Balakirev’s Islamey seemed like a Beecham ‘Lollipop’; but it found the orchestra still in fine fettle. I left the concert, as one should, having had my ears opened a little wider, and looking forward to Karabits and the BSO at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Sunday 19 May, distilling their exploration of Voices from the East into concerts at 1pm, 4pm and 7.30pm.

Chris Kettle

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