Three explosive performances and a touching gesture: Kirill Karabits’s fitting farewell with the BSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor). Lighthouse, Poole, 15.5.2024. (CK)

Kirill Karabits conducts pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan

Bartók – Suite, The Miraculous Mandarin
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3
Shostakovich – Symphony No.5

There was strong emotion in the air as the audience filled – yes, filled – the home of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for this concert: this was to be Kirill Karabits’s last appearance there as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor. The affection and esteem in which he is held was immediately apparent in the spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation that greeted his appearance. He and the orchestra will appear together in a BBC Prom at Bristol Beacon in August: and on Sunday, 19 May, they will perform three Voices from the East concerts in a single day at London’s Royal Festival Hall, at 1pm, 4pm and 7.30pm. Do take this never-to-be-repeated opportunity to hear the music of Eastern European composers if you possibly can!

This was a celebratory concert, but there was nothing comfortable in Karabits’s chosen programme: three masterpieces from the first half of the twentieth century. Bartók’s Suite from his stage work The Miraculous Mandarin is music with a harsh, brutal edge: the nearest he got to atonality. He called it a Pantomime in One Act, but you only have to read the synopsis to realise it is definitely not for children: the Mandarin’s fate is perhaps a lurid (and sordid) distortion of the idea of the Love-Death in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The music is immediately unsettling, trombones and tuba (on fine form) baying in the urban jungle. Anxious leaps for the clarinet; sinister rumbling in the cellos; distinctive contributions from all the woodwind principals; a genuinely creepy entry for the Mandarin, with skirling woodwind, muted trombones and a slithering tuba. The orchestra projected Bartók’s unsettling fragments and brief bursts of lyricism brilliantly: Karabits conducted superbly, allowing every detail to tell, and bringing the music to a pitch of tautly controlled excitement at the end. He quite rightly got the three clarinets to their feet for a bow: he might have done the same, I thought, for the three trombones.

There was a further torrent of instrumental and orchestral brilliance in the concert’s centrepiece, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3. Alexander Gavrylyuk, Ukrainian with Australian citizenship, looked to me more like a kindly bank manager than the Formula One pianist that this work requires: but he soon dispelled that impression, playing with percussive brilliance and soaring lyricism, overcoming all challenges with gleeful energy. There was genuine fantasy in his playing against pizzicato strings in the first movement, and in the slow movement’s impressionistic passage against rising horn fifths and octaves and a ghostly tracery in the violins. Karabits and the orchestra were with him all the way, and the concerto came over not so much as an exercise in diabolical virtuosity as an outpouring of irrepressible good humour. Bravo!

After the interval, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. One immediately noticed Karabits’s attention to string dynamics: there was a lean, focused clarity to the string playing that set the tone for the whole symphony. It was thrilling to hear the way Shostakovich ratchets the tension towards the first movement’s stark climax: but what I remember most vividly is the beautiful playing of flute and horn in its aftermath, the ghostly thread of sound from the solo violin, and the celeste’s final drops of ice.

After the Allegretto – characterfully dispatched, with roistering horns – it was the strings again that impressed in the Largo, playing with Mahlerian eloquence and making it abundantly clear that this is the heart of the symphony. There was a noble restraint in their playing, whether in passionate outcry or in pianissimo grief. Beautiful touches, too, from harp and flutes, a desolate oboe, clarinets, bassoons. Karabits and the orchestra achieved what some performances fail to: where in a lesser performance we might be waiting impatiently for the finale’s fireworks, they took us on a journey inwards to a place – a tundra of the imagination and the emotions – from which the finale rudely recalls us, but which it is not able entirely to dispel. That said, the finale was indeed thrilling, not least in the strings: they really seethed. Again, Karabits paced the approach to the rather coarse peroration perfectly. It may not be convincing, but it is certainly stirring.

Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan

Karabits forbore to make a lengthy speech: he said, touchingly, that for what he wanted to say, words are never enough. Instead, he conducted the strings in a moving piece by his fellow-Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov, fittingly entitled Farewell Serenade. He described it as happy/sad, leaning to the former: and so it proved, with the violins coming in towards the end with a theme in the major, and an unexpected harmonic shift bringing a radiant close.

At the beginning of the concert there had been a tribute to viola player Jacoba Gale, retiring from the orchestra after more than 44 years – a record. Before he left the stage at the end, Karabits took a yellow rose from the bouquet he had been presented with and gave it to her.

Chris Kettle

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