It can sound like a collection of offcuts from Scheherazade, but Rimsky-Korsakov composed Antar some 20 years before his most famous masterpiece. Originally titled as his Second Symphony (as in the programme here), Rimsky tinkered with it several times until 1903, eventually reclassifying it as a “symphonic suite”... just like Scheherazade, in fact. Seriously, if you love Scheherazade, you should investigate Antar. Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra scheduled it last season, but it fell victim to the second lockdown in the spring, so it was good to finally catch it in Basingstoke’s acoustically fine concert hall, The Anvil.

Kirill Karabits
© Mark Allan

The composer attached a fantastical programme which involves Antar saving a gazelle from an eagle’s clutches in the desert. The gazelle turns out to be the fairy Gul-Nazar, Queen of Palmyra, who grants Antar three gifts: vengeance, power and love. That third gift proves bittersweet as it leads to Antar’s death, entwined in Gul-Nazar’s arms. 

Rimsky’s score is full of sinuous exotic melodies, colourful percussion and motifs for the key characters that act like an idée fixe. Karabits clearly loves it to bits… and in this performance, so did I. The Ukranian maintained dramatic tension in the opening movement, with clipped string phrasing, dramatic harp flourishes and an urgent pace. There were polished woodwind solos, particularly from Anna Pyne (flute) and Barry Deacon (clarinet). The two short middle movements – depicting vengeance and power – made a thrilling impact, bristling with angry brass which really bit in The Anvil’s splendid acoustic. The strings swooned in the love music of the finale, Karabits never allowing the tension to sag, even though the work itself ends gently as Antar expires. For a stinging sign off, The Flight of the Bumblebee proved a fitting encore.

Alexander Malofeev, Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony in rehearsal

Alas, the first half of the programme was frustrating. Carmen Ho’s Unforged kicked off with a dissonant roar and explored a range of orchestral colours without much purpose. It’s time for a moratorium on bowed percussion in contemporary works, please. Young Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev then made quite the impression in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, though not completely positive. He set off with deliberate, tolling chords, slow and heavy, and the concerto rarely shifted gears from that point. Despite the feeling that Karabits wanted to press forward, Malofeev stubbornly kept his foot on the brakes. He’s certainly got a great technique and the Steinway often sounded huge under his hands, but the delivery was over-emphatic and lacking nuance. There’s more to Rachmaninov's concerto than just a trawl through treacle. 

The sugar content sprinkled over into Malofeev’s encore, but this was a charmer – Mikhail Pletnev's transcription of the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier from The Nutcracker that glittered.