Last week it was announced that, after 15 years at the helm, Kirill Karabits is stepping down from his post as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor. His programming leaves an indelible mark on audiences across the southwest. In his revelatory Voices from the East series, he has long championed the music of his native Ukraine. Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968) holds special personal interest for him – his father, Ivan Karabits, was one of his pupils. In 2018, Karabits Jnr conducted and recorded Lyatoshynsky’s Third Symphony in Poole. Now it was London’s chance to hear this titanic work, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Kirill Karabits
© Konrad Cwik

Lyatoshynsky’s Symphony no. 3 in B minor was composed between 1948-51. It was dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the October Revolution, but it was really the composer’s response to World War 2 in which Ukraine suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis. Kyiv was occupied for over two years and, in the atrocities at Babi Yar, more than 100,000 were slaughtered. The overpowering militaristic effects of the symphony are chilling, especially under the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

In mood, there are echoes of Shostakovich’s “War Symphonies”, in particular the Leningrad. A chiming three-note motif perforates the entire work, often ominously, even when played by the harps at the bleak opening of the Andante con moto second movement. Hints of folk-like themes were obliterated by mechanistic attacks, the BBCSO brass biting into the score’s combative elements with relish, shrieking piccolo and a fearsome battery of percussion ramping up the decibels. With his undemonstrative conducting, Karabits drove the performance with calm precision. The Scherzo, apart from a brief moment of woodwind respite, felt savage and angry. 

Lyatoshynsky, like Shostakovich, fell foul of the authorities and the fourth movement was criticised by Soviet apparatchiks who accused him of writing “not as a Soviet supporter of peace, but as a bourgeois pacifist”. Lyatoshynsky revised the finale and the symphony was eventually premiered in 1954, by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky. But Karabits reverts to the original finale, which bears the subtitle “Peace Shall Defeat War”, where a resolute theme builds momentum, the folksong theme from the first movement returns and the horns gallop in triumphantly. Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev came to mind as pealing bells and a sense of epic grandeur flooded the coda. 

Karabits was joined by fellow Ukrainian Anna Fedorova in the first half for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, a reading that was often silvery and fleet-footed. It felt breathless to begin with, but Fedorova gently applied the brakes where necessary, softer passages sounding lyrical rather than ruminative. After a dreamy Intermezzo, there was a dewy freshness to her light touch and skittish humour in the finale, even if the BBC woodwinds could have been more incisive. Spurred on by Karabits, the energetic closing pages brought a packed audience to its feet, but that energy was dissipated by Federova’s encore, Silvestrov’s The Messenger which noodled around a fragile Mozartian motif on eggshells for nearly ten minutes.