A seasonal programme from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra entitled “Tchaikovsky Magic” brought together an unashamedly tuneful concerto for orchestra, a sizzling ballet score and one of the most intensely wrought piano concertos from the Classical canon. Notwithstanding the relatively unfamiliar Rodion Shchedrin, another of Kirill Karabits characteristically enterprising choices, Mozart and Tchaikovsky were the big catch here. Add to that the acclaimed Venezuelan pianist/composer Gabriela Montero, the BSO’s Artist-in-residence, and you have a box office winner.

Kirill Karabits
© Konrad Cwik

The bulk of the programme was taken up with Karabits’ own arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite – its seventeen movements given a handsome, if rather too neat and tidy performance that mostly realised the composer’s dazzling melodic invention and facility for orchestration. If at times the playing seemed earthbound (tepid brass in the Act 1 March and a determinedly wooden tempo for the Chinese Dance), Tchaikovsky’s iridescent hues were heard to good effect with three beguiling flutes in the Dance of the Reeds and two harps charmed the ear in the Waltz of the Flowers – although its glamorous violin theme seemed bereft of rhythmic impulse, a joyless dance that briefly prompted some desultory swaying from two audience members. Karabits drew plenty of polish from his players, but everyone’s collars were just-so and shirts too tightly buttoned. There was much to enjoy from the celesta (a newly invented instrument Tchaikovsky discovered in Paris in 1891) and swirling vigour enlivened the dances for the Prince and the Sugar-Plum Fairy.

The evening had begun with Rodion Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra no. 1 “Naughty Limericks”. A champion of the Russian composer, Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have already recorded two of Shchedrin’s concerti for orchestra and their commitment to him showed in this zesty account of a 1963 work on which the composer himself has commented: “there is always humour, irony and a sharp satire of the status quo”. The title refers to Chastushka, a short folksong, common in the Ukraine and Belarus, predominantly mocking and edgy in tone. At some 8-10 minutes it’s a terrific curtain-raiser, a night out on the tiles for orchestra, eventful and brimming with vitality in its collective and individual colouring and loaded with soloistic opportunities to which the orchestra responded with obvious glee. Short, cheeky tunes are variously juxtaposed with jubilant whoops, a flatulent trombone and a restless walking bass, the whole hyper-energised with armfuls of chutzpah in every intoxicating bar. Shchedrin’s ear for sonorities is boundless; balalaikas are evoked through the strings of the piano covered in paper and wooden spoons combined with cymbals are used to haunting effect.

This delirious joyride was followed by a well-behaved account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor. Interestingly, for one of only two concertos by the composer in a minor key (and here in one closely associated with Beethoven), Karabits and Montero chose to limit the strings to 86421, just two cellos and a single bass underpinning a chamber ensemble. For a work so rich and darkly brooding, its understated drama was curiously absent. Clarity of tone and articulation was all present and correct, but the evening’s novelty came in Montero’s’ improvised cadenza – sounding to my ears more Beethovenish than Mozartian, yet rewarding finally to hear some brilliance in her execution. If the slow movement didn’t plumb any emotional depths, the finale brought some much sought-after drama. Montero returned to give an extended and impressive improvisation on the tune ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at’ – a sort of Bach to Broadway stylistic patchwork that held the audience spellbound.