Kirill Karabits has been leading the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for almost a decade now, and his confidence in the ensemble, and in the broad tastes of their audience, is demonstrated in the impressively diverse programmes he presents. This evening’s concert, entitled Lord of the Dance, brought together Bartók, Barber and Lutosławski, an adventurous selection with plenty of surprises. The performances were bold and confident, and the musical standards generally high, even if the spectacular accomplishments of the second half highlighted occasional ensemble problems in the first.

Nemanja Radulović © Marie Staggat | DG
Nemanja Radulović
© Marie Staggat | DG

Publicity for the concert was focussed squarely on the soloist, the Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović. He is in Poole for a three-concert residency in which, like Karabits, he is exploring some interesting and unusual repertoire. This performance of the Barber Concerto followed the Khachaturian in December, and the residency will conclude in March with a recital taking in Prokofiev and Wieniawski. His take on the Barber suggests that he is happy to work outside his comfort zone, and this was far from the sweeping, Romantic accounts that the work usually receives. Instead, he and Karabits emphasised rigour and pace, even in the highly expressive slow movement. Radulović has a flamboyant stage presence – dancing round in front of the orchestra in leather trousers and knee-length Goth boots – but his performing style is more reserved. His tone is focussed, elegant but lacking brilliance or flair. He also sometimes lacks the necessary volume, a problem exacerbated by his tendency to turn his back on the audience. But that tonal reserve is an ideal match for his incisive reading of Barber’s eloquent lines. The long melody of the opening movement was always beautifully shaped, if a little clipped in the overly efficient cadences. The orchestra really shone in the Andante second movement, the textures here dominated by the luxuriant horn tone. Radulović was quoted in the programme saying that “the second movement is so beautiful you have the feeling it’s the end of the world sometimes,” but again his reading was more disciplined than sentimental.

All of which made his choice of the Barber puzzling, a work clearly better suited to more expansive and unrestrained performing styles. The mystery was solved by the Presto finale, an ideal vehicle for Radulović’s sprightly and efficient technique. The fast runs here, delivered across long, involved phrases, were projected with breathtaking intensity and focus, and both soloist and orchestra were able to maintain the frenetic pace from beginning to end. For an encore, Radulović brought the first desks of the strings to their feet to play a short gypsy fiddle number, another whirlwind Presto. This proved another impressive display of the violinist’s technique, wowing the audience, even if it did suggest that Radulović is more at home in this style that in the more formal world of the Barber.

The concert began with Bartók’s early, but already radical, Dance Suite of 1923. Although uncomplicated in its melodic appeal, Bartók’s score employs the orchestra in a wide range of unusual ways. Many of these seemed to catch the players off-guard, and the result was a seriously shaky start to the performance. We hear unusual doublings and octaves, and melodic fragments appearing in the mid and low range, passed between the players. But without the pinpoint ensemble required, the results lacked coherency. The performance’s saving grace was the excellent solo work from the woodwind and brass sections. A special mention, then, for bassoonist Tammy Thorn and tubist Andy Cresci, who both provided valuable focus in their respective interjections. The performance finally found its direction in the finale, with the decisive intervention of the trumpets and trombones, playing off each other in bitonal roulades, but with an implacable authority that seemed to unite the rest of the orchestra beneath them.

No such problems in the second half. The Lutosławski Concerto for Orchestra is arguably as radical in its instrumentation as the Bartók, but fared much better here. It is also a virtuoso turn for the conductor, and Karabits rose admirably to the challenge. Textures were presented with ideal clarity and rhythms cleanly articulated. The Vivace second movement danced, the filigree orchestral textures belying the elaborate sophistication of Lutosławski’s writing. And the passacaglia finale was ideally paced, with Karabits carefully unfolding the movement’s grand structure, but all the time keeping one ear out for the ornamental details in the woodwind and percussion.

A daring and enjoyable programme then, though it didn’t all come off in performance. But any problems in the first half were soon forgotten as the masterful reading of the Lutosławski took shape in the second. An excellent atmosphere here in Poole as well, with an almost full house.