Presiding at the podium last Thursday evening was Ukrainian-born Kirill Karabits. As principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra since 2009 and recipient last year of a Royal Philharmonic Society’s Conductor of the Year award his star is very much in the ascendant. His recent work with the BSO indicates a passion for Prokofiev and Shostakovich – an interest in the latter’s symphonic works that developed in his teens not long after his early obsession with the music of Abba.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

Whether the Swedish pop group was an influential presence for Kirill Karabits is unclear, but there is no doubt that Mahler was an important source of inspiration for Shostakovich, no more apparent than in the multi-various chamber sonorities that inhabit the Symphony no. 5 in D minor with which the second half of the concert began. It was Mahler, however, that opened the proceedings in the shape of the serenade-like Blumine. Originally conceived as incidental music to a pageant play Der Trompeter von Säckingen, it had a brief existence as part of Mahler’s First Symphony (1889) and re-emerged in 1967 when Benjamin Britten resurrected it as a stand-alone item at the Aldeburgh Festival. It makes a pleasing concert opener although the trumpeter might prefer a few more bars of tremolando strings before beginning his solo. This appeared not to present any fears for Chris Avison who delivered its long-breathed melodic line with calm control and beauty of tone, as did the oboist Edward Kay, in his minor key version of the same theme. Karabits drew some wonderfully controlled string playing, notably in the high altitude closing bars where the harp joins the violins to magical effect.

A slimmed-down BSO then presented Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major for violin, cello, piano and orchestra. Stepping out from the orchestra to perform as soloists were Amyn Merchant, violin and Jesper Svedberg, cello: joining them on the extended platform was pianist Sunwook Kim, the orchestra’s Artist-in-Residence. Beethoven’s concerto has not always fared well in performance, nor is it an easy work to programme, so it was particularly gratifying to hear a reading given with such obvious commitment from conductor, orchestra and soloists. If the first movement is rather long-winded, then any structural or dramatic imperfections could be easily overlooked in this performance where the cellist, with many expressive gestures, fully embraced its high ranging solo part. If Merchant didn’t always seem quite so at ease on the stage, his sweet-toned violin was a perfect partner to both Jesper Svedberg and Sunwook Kim who, with his back to the other soloists, produced miracles of ensemble playing.

After the interval, and with orchestral forces fully restored, it was Shostakovich who provided a proper workout for the orchestra. This highly polished account from the BSO was helped, in some measure, by their preparation for the same programme given the previous evening at The Lighthouse, Poole. Particularly impressive was Kirill Karabits’ pacing of the symphony’s four movements and his control over orchestral balance – something other conductors have not always achieved within the moderately sized performance space at the Anvil. But the BSO are no strangers to this venue and have grasped the idea that triple forte passages – such as the dramatic climax in the first movement – can still be powerful without being overblown. Impressive too was the way Karabits steered the orchestra through the first movement’s tempo fluctuations, maintaining throughout its 17-minute span a clear sense of its structure. Similarly in the colourful second movement, a prime target for capsizing if the players get carried away, there was total control.  

Shostakovich provides numerous solo opportunities which, in the slow movement, produced eloquent contributions from oboe, flute and harp. Equally distinguished was the string ensemble (divided into eight groups) that begin and end this highly charged movement. The finale gave brass and percussion moments of glory and they rose to the occasion magnificently. The work’s conclusion was breathless and, even if it didn’t prompt a standing ovation as it had for its 1937 première, its performance by this one-time Abba admirer was utterly convincing. Thank you for the Music.