Sinuous and seductive, wily and beguiling, Scheherazade can prove a handful for many conductors. Do you try to tame her capricious moods or succumb to her will? Kirill Karabits seemed content to give the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra its head to unfold a gentle retelling of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score inspired by The Arabian Nights, although a firmer hand may have whipped up a more exciting finale to this satisfying concert.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov

This is the second time I’ve seen Karabits conduct within a week and once again I was most impressed with his understated platform manner – almost deferential, never asserting himself too strongly, encouraging the orchestra to listen to each other, carefully cueing entries. In Scheherazade, the leader takes the role of the Sultan’s latest consort, spinning stories to stave off execution. After Clio Gould’s sinewy introduction to the second movement, “The Tale of the Kalender Prince”, there is sustained pedal chord from double basses and cellos, over which the principal bassoonist is instructed to play ‘ad lib’. To his credit, Karabits lowered his baton, allowing John McDougall to unfurl his narrative at his own pace, beautifully nuanced with bags of character, as was his solo later in the same movement – a perfect example of the conductor stepping back from the limelight.

When he took control, Karabits moulded and shaped the lush string melody which opens the third movement most persuasively, drawing a rich, warm cello sound to the big melody, taken at a steady tempo. The perky Allegretto theme, the percussion-lit procession in which the princess arrives in her palanquin, was beautifully shaped, decorated with some fantastic staccato flute figures. His tempi for the opening movement, depicting the sea and Sinbad’s ship, ebbed and flowed, characterized by the rocking waves in the cello and clarinet. Gould offered a sinuous, feisty Scheherazade, not afraid to play aggressively, but also shading her playing to the dreamiest pianissimi. Jonathan Ayling’s eloquent cello solos also deserve special mention.

At times, Karabits could have been more assertive. After an imposing opening to the work, the brass seemed reluctant to make its mark until later on, when Sinbad’s ship founders on the rocks in the stormy finale, although the tempest never quite raged out of control. There were flying bow-hairs among the second violins – I’d have welcomed a few more to whip up the storm before Gould and Karabits lulled the tale to the gentlest of conclusions.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, which proved an effective warm-up, allowing the strings to flex their muscles. As an orchestral work-out, this was more an amiable jog than a hell-for-leather sprint and all the better for it. Karabits encouraged an almost collegiate approach, with string leaders listening carefully to other sections. The second movement Larghetto was characterized by a refined elegance. The Gavotte of the third movement was a little stop-go in terms of tempo; I think Karabits was aiming for humour, but wasn’t sure it registered completely. His steady tempo for the finale allowed all the ricochet string volleys to bounce off each other joyously.

In between these two Russian classics, there came a home-grown warhorse in the form of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Steven Isserlis’ radiant performance found a lovely balance between the introspective and the rhapsodic, never trying to impose himself in terms of volume or character. For much of the concerto’s duration, he seemed to inhabit his own world, but there was a lovely interplay with the strings, particularly the cello section which Isserlis singled out for praise at the end. At the concerto’s opening, he seemed impatient to push the orchestra on a tad, but Karabits and the RPO were soon the most attentive of partners. The Adagio was sadly blighted by a cacophony (or a ca-cough-any?) of hacks and splutters from the audience, but dark moods were brushed away in a delightfully sprung finale.

Isserlis served up an exquisite encore: Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds, which opened with the most fragile of pianissimi, and succeeded in holding the audience in rapt attention. It was the perfect sea of tranquillity between Elgar’s heart-on-sleeve emotion and Rimsky’s oriental adventures. 

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