This finely balanced programme comprised, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra.

Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony is an affectionate homage to Haydn, where he employs many of the symphonic writing techniques prevalent in the late 18th century. Karabits' interpretation, with tempi as indicated by the composer, revealed a much greater clarity to the performance than is often the case, where the music can be so easily be dashed off in a slightly casual way. The playing of the first movement in this more considered way enhanced, rather than detracted from, the composer’s impish sense of fun – the skilfully handled interplay between strings and woodwind being of particular note. The whole was elegant and refined. 

In the second movement, the atmosphere created was more reflective and this interpretation really show-cased the “pastoral” nature of the writing – the prominent violin line was sensitively and delicately played, the alternating woodwind sections adding touches of bucolic colour and humour. The Gavotta was taken at the slow and stately pace required by this dance form – nevertheless, the performance remained light and stylish with Prokofiev’s sense of mischief never far away. The Finale was deftly handled with playing that was finely balanced with an élan and joie de vivre which never faltered.

Robert Levin © Ascherman
Robert Levin
© Ascherman

Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto is full of typically Beethovian rising scales and twists of modulation; the clarinet also plays a prominent part in the second movement. The first movement is full of grandeur which was enjoyed to the full by conductor, orchestra and soloist alike – as well as the quieter, more reflective sections of the movement being sensitively handled.

Robert Levin is not only an exceptionally talented pianist but also a musicologist and composer – his specialism being the music of the 18th century (particularly Mozart). His experience of performing on period instruments shone through with playing that displayed great clarity, as well as agility and elegance. An unexpected treat was the fact that the cadenza was totally improvised, exactly as Beethoven himself would have done – a feat which was awe-inspiring for both audience and orchestra alike. 

A sublime and tranquil slow movement followed, beautifully played with much visual (as well as auditory) interplay between soloist and orchestra before the vigour of the final movement which began without pause. A very exciting and breath-taking pace was set by Levin from the outset – a pace which the BSO matched with ease in this wonderful, cat-and-mouse, chase through the score. A few of the solo piano sections did feel, on occasion, slightly rushed, but this was more than made up for by the overall dynamic, rhythmic pulse throughout which drove the movement to its impressive conclusion.

The second half of this evening’s concert was dedicated to Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra – an appropriate choice as we are still in the 150th anniversary year of the composer’s birth, as well as its “Sunrise” opening section befitting the celebration of a new concert season. Although Strauss was paying homage to Nietzsche’s work of the same name, he said of his work: “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche’s great work musically. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman”.

It’s a large-scale, richly scored tone poem, requiring a huge orchestra – the stage at the Lighthouse was indeed full to bursting with musicians! Popularised in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the dramatic sunrise opening was exhilarating – marred slightly by the synthetic pedal point opening which sounded somewhat artificial at this register. The performance contained some memorable highlights – the gorgeous, intimate (exquisitely phrased) string sound in “Of the Backworldsmen” which developed into a lush, romantic outpouring of emotion; the truly sinister opening to “Of Science” followed by a superbly balanced performance of the light and airy “Alpine” sections with the darker drama of the writing; the fugal build-up to the nail-biting, edge-of-your seat drama in “The Convalescent”, culminating in a quite overwhelming, massive wall of sound at this section’s climax; and the skilfully handled “Dance Song”, which alternates between the intimacy of the solo violin with the joyous and rumbustious, fuller orchestral sections. Finally, the quiet, reflective but unresolved finish which simply fades away to nothing…

The memorable and life-affirming performance was due in no small part to the beautiful violin playing of Amyn Merchant (leader of the BSO) and principal trumpeter, Chris Avison - as well as the ever-growing synergy between Kirill and the BSO. This was a superb opening concert and, as Dougie Scarfe (the BSO’s Chief Executive) remarked in his introduction to the evening, “Wednesdays are back to normal!”