This Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert under Kirill Karabits was billed under the title “Bohemian Fire” and it certainly didn’t contravene the Trades Descriptions Act. Rachmaninov dedicated his Caprice bohémien to Anna Lodyzhenskaya, the beautiful gypsy wife of his friend, Peter Lodyzhensky. According to some sources, the original manuscript of Rachmaninov’s next work, his cataclysmic First Symphony, also carried a dedication to “A.L.” along with Tolstoy’s doom-laden epigraph to Anna Karenina: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” With a sizzling concerto performance by French-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović, it was an evening to burst the thermometer.

Nemanja Radulović © Charlotte Abramow | DG
Nemanja Radulović
© Charlotte Abramow | DG

Karabits gave the programme a quirky twist by seeming to play it in reverse order: we opened with the symphony, the concerto followed the break with the symphonic poem tacked on to the end. Plunging straight into the gloom of Rachmaninov’s First though worked surprisingly well. The symphony had received the worst of all possible premières, Glazunov (allegedly soused on vodka) conducting was uninspired and composer-critic César Cui’s withering verdict likening it to a musical depiction of the seven plagues of Egypt. For my money, it’s the strongest of Rachmaninov’s three symphonies, more concise than the rambling Second, lugubrious but never unduly sentimental.

The orchestra under Karabits sounds in finer shape than I’ve heard them in decades, aided by The Anvil’s warm acoustic that really allows the brass to bloom. From the black, bleak opening, big-boned string tone was evident along with an earthy punch to the brass. Karabits led a gripping account, maintaining tension even in the ghostly Scherzo. His baton technique is odd, a jerky movement which seems to get interrupted at the top of his arc, but nonetheless he shaped phrases effectively. The BSO strings impressed, from the veiled violas introducing the Larghetto, to urgent double basses forcing the pace in a thrilling finale. Karabits heightened the drama, with an elongated pause as the tam-tam crash withered and died in the generous acoustic before emphatic timpani thwacks sealed our fate.

Nemanja Radulović made quite the impression before he’d played a single note of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Knee-high boots, black vest beneath his black jacket and a mop of wild hair tied back, he looked like he should be playing a rock concert. His playing immediately drew in the audience, highly animated, crouching like a panther or swaying. There was plenty of visual engagement with the orchestra during tuttis, seemingly communicating with Karabits via raised eyebrows. There is a juicy ripeness to Radulović’s tone which is to die for, a big, romantic sound, and his playing is technically astonishing. He displayed a huge dynamic range in the first movement cadenza, while long phrases sighed and ached in the Canzonetta – members of the violin section were visibly swooning. He nearly wilted in the heat, wiping down his bow with a white cloth, his brow with a black one, but he was clearly having the time of his life. Radulović’s playing is never “Look at me!” but you cannot peel your eyes – or ears – from him.

The Caprice bohémien could have felt like an anti-climax coming after such violinistic pyrotechnics, but not here. It uses themes from Rachmaninov’s early opera, Aleko. After the timpani motif was rattled out with stick handles, solemn brass and charcoal-tinted strings glowered effectively in this slow-burner of a work. But it caught light effectively, a whirling gypsy dance to close a splendid evening of fiery Russian fare.

*****