This was a concert of two halves: it was a time for restraint, it was a time for agitation; it was a half of mellifluous melodies, it was a half of harsh harmonies; it was polite playing, it was barbarous brasses and pervasive percussion. In short, this was a concert as divided by style as by the startling changes in performance both by conductor and orchestra. Kirill Karabits, conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, gave us a polite, if emotionally contained, Tchaikovsky, a suitably reserved accompaniment to Nicola Benedetti in Korngold's Violin Concerto and, like a man transfigured, electrifying Prokofiev.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

The programming had both a gradual atonal and chronological trajectory. Starting with the sumptuous harmonies and the dulcet melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, it was both the earliest written work on the programme and the most overtly romantic. Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major before the interval was an intriguing mix of explorative harmonies and lush Hollywood lyricism. Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, written in 1944 Soviet Russia, was, in the composer’s own words “a hymn to free and happy man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit” and yet seemed to relish in mocking this grandeur and portraying his darker side.

The Tchaikovsky got off to a somewhat shaky start, with some tuning issues in the woodwinds, and while the conflict theme possessed an exciting rhythmic drive, the overall impression was one of controlled emotion rather than a passionate outpouring. The modulation that melts into D flat major of the love theme was done in a prosaic fashion, and in this section there was never any danger of over-romanticising. Quite the reverse: the monumental climaxes were expressive, but failed to soar. This was such a pity, as there were many good elements to this performance: meticulous co-ordination, a warm string section and excellent brass playing.

Such restraint from both conductor and orchestra, while disappointing in Tchaikovsky, was the perfect accompaniment to Nicola Benedetti’s playing in Korngold's concerto. Always supportive and never once overpowering the violin, the orchestra allowed Benedetti to shine. Within the first few notes she played, I was immediately struck by the superlative tone she coaxed out of her violin, a Gariel Stradivarius (1717). While she demonstrated technical wizardry in the shape of perfectly executed fiendish double-stops, leaps, insanely high octaves, I was much more interested in drinking in her glorious tone, now tremulous with vibrato, now simple and unadorned. Benedetti's sense of phrasing and the manner in which she melted in with the orchestra at the appropriate moments was deeply satisfying. The outer movements of this concerto are noteworthy for their technical fireworks, but it was in the lyrical second movement where Benedetti was at her most engaging. The jig-like third movement featured some spectacularly controlled ricochets with the orchestra responding most sensitively to her dynamic range.

Prokofiev's monumental Symphony no. 5 in B flat major occupied the entire second half. Sometimes, the interval can affect a change in a performer’s outlook as first half nerves disappear. Whatever the cause, post-interval Karabits strode onto the stage and, with masterful insightful, directed a captivating performance. The BSO responded immediately to this transformation, brimming with energy and passion. The sombre opening first movement was evocatively handled, while the coda featured powerfully sinister brass, triumphantly evil – perhaps a comment on the political situation in Soviet Russia in 1944.

The second movement scherzo pulsated with energy as its melody sardonically poked fun on biting brass and harsh woodwinds. The ostinato motion of this movement had Karabits leaping about on the podium as he ratcheted up the excitement with accelerandi and dynamics. The idea of allowing the lyricism of the third movement to evolve naturally worked wonderfully here. Once again, special praise is due to the brass section in the tremendous climax of this piece. Along with the drums crashes, they brought a suitably apocalyptic feeling to the middle section of this movement. The sombre mood of the preceding movement was changed by the exuberance of the clarinet melody in the final movement. The articulation from the string section was sharp and crisp and there was some wonderful syncopation between the percussion and the brass, both sections playing outstandingly well. Karabits brought the symphony to a jubilant close, notching up the tension and excitement to an incredible degree. 

****1