Who would have thought Dorset concertgoers would have become so well-informed about East European composers, especially those from Ukraine? Kirill Karabits has been programming music from his homeland and neighbouring states for some years, so Lighthouse regulars are no longer intimidated by Glière, Karayev, Lyatoshinsky and Terterian. To these names he has now added Feodor Akimenko (1876-1945) whose Cello Concerto received its world premiere in Poole on Wednesday and marked an ambitious start for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-2023 season. This was an opportunity, to quote Karabits, “to reveal an important and completely forgotten composer, whose music definitely deserves attention”.

Victor Julien-Laferrière in rehearsal
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Written a century ago in 1922 while living in Paris, the Cello Concerto was discovered in the French National Library where Akimenko’s manuscripts had been deposited after his death. Until recently one might only have encountered his name as one of the first teachers of Stravinsky, but the music of this St Petersburg choirboy is slowly being unearthed and includes a handful of instrumental character pieces, two piano sonatas and several works based on Ukrainian themes. The premiere of his Cello Concerto, originally planned to take place in Akimenko’s native Kharkiv in north-east Ukraine, was inevitably not possible, but two violinists from the Ukraine orchestra joined the BSO for this event and French cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière was the soloist.

The concerto’s 20 minutes rolled by blamelessly enough, its musical influences suggesting Tchaikovsky with a French accent and possibly some undigested César Franck into the mix. Within its three-linked movements, the melodic material (variously lyrical and urgent) occasionally felt overworked and its scoring not always favouring the soloist whose modest tone was too often overwhelmed by the orchestra. The central movement, a sort of Romanze, was intensely wrought and brought out the best of Julien-Laferrière who clearly enjoyed its salon-like manner.

Earlier there had been a scintillating account of Stravinsky’s 1908 Scherzo fantastique. It’s a tinsel-coloured work which its composer regarded as “pure, symphonic music”. The players of the BSO responded magnificently to its storytelling sweep, revelling in its Mendelssohnian mischief and ear-catching sonorities. It was the perfect season opener.

The evening concluded with Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor, and at the end of its 70 plus minutes I felt as if I had been emotionally and sonically battered, the sound of brass and timpani ringing in my ears. There was no doubting Karabit’s commitment to the score, his excitement palpable in the opening Funeral March where both feet occasionally left the rostrum, a form of levitation that worked wonders for the movement’s fortissimo lamentations. But he also coaxed some fine string tone, notably in the second movement where the cello section formed a tender counterweight to earlier frenzy. It was in the central Scherzo, begun with Alexander Wide’s superb horn contribution, that Karabits convincingly underlined the movement’s schizophrenic quality and Viennese character. By turns its waltz figures alarmed and sparkled, their opposite emotional worlds effortlessly controlled with well-judged gestures, light and shade in abundance. At ten minutes, the Adagietto was no sentimental affair, but midway through achieved a still centre that took us to a “haven of recuperation from life’s turmoil” as Deryck Cooke once described this movement. Exhilaration resumed for the finale in a clamorous workout, that once again demonstrated this orchestra’s fire power, and the movement’s final furlong was unequivocally life affirming.

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