You’ve heard this one before. But it’s not a joke; it’s actually very serious. It’s the familiar romantic piano concerto, or late-classical symphony, or overture to that opera you’ve never heard the rest of. You’ve got your favourites, and if they were chocolates in a box, you know which ones you’d snap up first. The others? Well, maybe. You’ll see. Perhaps you’ll like it more this time. Perhaps that Beethoven concerto will shine a little brighter than usual. But the really unusual ones are the risk. If they were that good, surely you’d have heard them already?

Kirill Karabits © Denis Manokha
Kirill Karabits
© Denis Manokha

It can be hard to escape the feeling of routine with those old favourites. The more often we meet the warhorses, the more we learn about them, yet familiarity leaves us impatient with the routine or the quite good or the not that bad. French pianist David Fray has built a reputation for serious and thoughtful performances of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert, the sort of stuff in which something fresh and unexpected is required to stand out in a crowded market. He drew us in to the rapt, inward-looking passages of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at Bristol’s Colston Hall. He made something unaffected and touching of the piano-solo introduction to the concerto’s central Largo. But routine ruled. The intense, quite moments were lit with his special touch, but were of one colour. His habit of snatching at the climaxes leading to the orchestral tuttis was repetitive. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra offered solid accompaniment, but Fray’s own encore caught the feeling in a nutshell – Chopin’s E flat Noctune, with a floating, pearlescent right hand, and a tempo that suggested he had somewhere else to be.

The real joy of the evening came in the break from the routine. Audiences are famously shy of the unfamiliar, but here were two reasons to embrace the unknown and leave the hall asking “Why don’t that play that all the time?!” The BSO’s long-serving Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits has a knack for reaching into the Russian music box and pulling out surprises, and here Alexander Glazunov’s Overture to his suite From the Middle Ages began the exploration. Was it great music? Probably not, but its rocking, dark opening hinted at Wagner and, conversely, Schumann, whilst retaining a flavour of its own. And while the routine might end with one of those late Tchaikovsky symphonies we love but bump into rather too often, here Karabits chose instead the Suite no.3 in G major.

Not a total stranger – the most frequently performed of the four orchestral suites – but refreshing and unusual, all the same. And clearly the orchestra agreed, giving this the best performance of the evening, with strong solos in the wind and precise and full sound and playing from the strings. Tchaikovsky seems to have treated the suite form as a symphonic sandbox, and freed from the strenuous seriousness of the symphony, felt freer to play and to reach for the kind of lyrical, candlelit glow familiar from the ballets. Without the weight of biography, the music enchants with its colours and textures and momentum alone, delights that Karabits kept aloft for the Suite’s full 40 minutes and throughout the charming variation-finale. Beyond the routine, the joy of this evening was leaving the usual path and finding what lay a only little beyond.

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