Wednesday night’s Prom saw the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor Kirill Karabits give the fourth instalment of the season’s Tchaikovsky symphony cycle with the sunny, confident Third, in D major. As the programme noted, the D major symphony is somewhat hard to place between the folksy, popular appeal of the first two and the high psychological drama of nos. 4–6. This concert sold itself somewhat on the idea, as Karabits had it, that we might discover a new “intimate and lyrical” side of Tchaikovsky that goes unheard in the dark final trilogy. Rather unfortunately for the symphony, however, we were also treated to performances of two established masterworks in the form of Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, with soloist Sunwook Kim. It was the latter work in particular that received a performance so totally committed and mesmerising that the symphony did not – despite as great a performance as one could want – really stand a chance.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

Impressive, grandiose appearances by a military band playing fanfares frame the Sinfonietta, which also evokes the sound of Moravian citizens gossiping and shouting in the streets, servants running to and fro on tasks, and solemn discussion in Brno’s town hall. Karabits’ orchestra sounded always radiantly beautiful, the strings in particular worthy of comparison with some of the best orchestras in the world. Despite this and truly fearsome accuracy throughout, the body of the orchestra lacked an appropriately rustic bite, and it all sounded rather too proper. The same could not happily, be said of the brass. Thrilling from start to finish, the combined forces of the standing military ensemble Janáček demands and the orchestral brass were truly earsplitting at the momentous close, even despite the Royal Albert Hall’s often uninspiring acoustic. Special mention goes to the bass trombones, who, despite full orchestral forces going at the notes hell for leather, could be heard dominating the whole ensemble in gloriously indecorous fashion, giving the sound a craggy edge which had been missing in their absence.

In the Beethoven concerto, the human, “rough” edge that had been missing in the Janáček was on full display. Resisting accession to the “C minor mood” of Beethoven – Gothic struggles for individuality played out on an epic scale, as in the Fifth Symphony – Karabits and Kim instead laid bare the good humour and tenderness observed by friends of the great composer. Sunwook Kim, the youngest ever winner of the Leeds Piano Competition at 18 in 2006, gave a simply astonishing performance. It is rare to hear a performer so aware of the possibilities for intimacy in the Albert Hall’s massive acoustic: Kim placed pianissimos always on the edge of disappearance so that the audience almost had to strain to hear; the effect was spellbinding, particularly in the simple but shattering cadenzas of the second movement. The BSO met the challenge of Kim’s dynamics with aplomb, capable of scintillating quiet playing and also bright, clear tuttis, helped by “authentic” trumpets and timpani.

Conductor and soloist brought a totally unified vision to the work throughout, exemplified by superb dramatic pacing in the long first movement, the grand cadenza aptly summing up both the Sturm und Drang and, more critically, the warm, human tenderness of the movement that preceded it. Karabits beamed from start to finish, and given the rapturous reception, it seems like most of the audience did too. Kim gave Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat major, Op. 90 no. 2 as an encore, in a performance at least as psychologically and musically nuanced as the concerto, and certainly as any you would hear in recital. A totally unforgettable 40 minutes of music.

What, then, was to be done about the Tchaikovsky? Following not only two real cornerstones of the repertory, but also a performance such as the one we had heard before the interval, it seems unfortunate that it was the Third and not one of the later three symphonies that closed the concert, because it simply could not stand up to what preceded it. In five movements, it more closely resembles a dance suite: beginning with a funeral march and then a big D major symphonic allegro, there follows a waltzing second movement, an achingly melodious slow movement, a shadowy, elfin scherzo and a full-blooded Polonaise finale. Karabits and the BSO, to their credit, performed every moment like it was gold dust, fully capable of taking on the rest of the programme. The brass were raucous, the strings always full-blooded and Romantic, particularly in the glowing middle section of the slow movement. Outside of this concert, it would have been revelatory; the playing and interpretation really were world-class. As it was, after such a stunning first half, it would have been difficult for any work to satisfactorily close the concert, particularly a symphony that is only ever very good.

****1