Surf the internet these days and you quickly sense the importance of individuals described collectively as influencers. But as individuals go, has there ever been a greater influencer on the material that artists choose to work with than Shakespeare? When it comes to King Lear, however, one of the blackest things the Bard ever wrote, something approaching a curse seems to have been involved. Verdi struggled for forty years with a libretto and was in despair at the scale of the challenge. Debussy, tasked with creating incidental music for the play, found his inspiration thwarted by the demands of a penny-pinching impresario. What remains in his case are two short movements taking up no more than five minutes.

Kirill Karabits
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

In this concert dedicated to the memory of Bernard Haitink, Kirill Karabits and the London Symphony Orchestra gave a festive edge to proceedings in the opening Fanfare, conjuring up scenes of a medieval feasting-hall, while in Le Sommeil de Lear the muted horns suggested an unruly sleep, even as the sounds ebbed away into silence. 

All the sections of the LSO were on fine form in Berlioz’ Le Roi Lear, which is more of a tone poem than an overture. In its fragmented episodes and wrenching dissonances this music breathes inner turmoil. Here a degree of self-identification between composer and tragic king is inescapable: whilst reading the Shakespearean work in 1831 Berlioz was in the midst of rejection by his fiancée Camille Moke. Karabits brought out all the angriness in the frequent blasts from the brass (a tuba replacing the original ophicleide), the heightened emotions in the agitated writing for the strings, and gave the affecting oboe solos traditionally associated with Lear’s misaligned daughter Cordelia time to breathe. In the richness and extroversion of the orchestration I heard more than a few pre-echoes of Verdi’s Falstaff: Berlioz too was an influencer on composers who followed. 

Kirill Karabits conducts the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

There were echoes of a different kind in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Cortège for Bernard Haitink which opened the second half: the economy of the material recalled the Second Viennese School, the transparency of textures Debussy and the calm unruffled air the master-conductor himself.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is frequently regarded as his sunniest work. That clearly is the way Karabits sees it, though in any final analysis such an approach risks making it appear far too one-dimensional. The opening was startlingly brisk (the composer’s instruction is not to hurry), primary colours to the fore, a jaunty ride in an open-decked sports car, eyes firmly ahead. As a consequence I found myself seriously short-changed. Though the playing was never less than technically secure, I missed any deeper engagement with the emotional undercurrents: no heartache in the strings, no heart-stopping moments when individual instrumental lines coalesce and the music becomes magically airborne. Mahler didn’t only paint bucolic scenes. 

Siobhan Stagg
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Skittishness had the upper hand in the second movement, in which the leader, given a scordatura notation for the second instrument, would normally have an opportunity to shine. Instead, Karabits gave repeated prominence to the solo horn, as was the case in the slow movement, where seamlessness and the radiance which then emerges from it were found wanting.

If the Finale brought amends, this was largely down to the young Australian soprano, Siobhan Stagg, replacing an indisposed Lucy Crowe. Her voice, though not large, had all the characteristics that matter in this child’s view of paradise. Silvery-toned and with a wide-eyed innocence of expression, even of pitch and celestial in quality, her rendering of the Wunderhorn text called to mind those celebrated Meissen porcelain figurines: exquisite detailing and a perfect glaze.

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