This evening’s concert opened with the Coriolan Overture. This work very much encapsulates the darker side of Beethoven, characterised by its tremendous fire and energy (based on Coriolanus by Beethoven’s friend, the playwright Heinrich Joseph von Collin). Kirill Karabits conducted this with a finely judged balance of drama and power on the one hand and lightness of touch on the other. Never losing its agitated forward momentum for a single beat, we were treated to a rhythmically crisp and dynamic performance, providing a fitting appetiser to the evening’s music-making.

Sally Matthews © Johan Persson
Sally Matthews
© Johan Persson

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, frequently and aptly described as “a rainbow of orchestral colour”, were written in 1948, a year before the composer’s death. They were not composed in the order in which they are usually performed; the last, Im Abendrot (At sunset), was written first and is based on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. The others are based on poems by Hermann Hesse and followed soon after, comprising music of unashamed romanticism tinged with autumnal peace and acceptance of life’s ending. They were the composer’s last major work and provide a fitting epitaph to a composer who had a life-long love of the soprano voice. Indeed, as he lay on his deathbed, he asserted that “Dying is as I had composed it”.

Karabits opted for a lighter, chamber music-style approach to the songs which perfectly matched Sally Matthews’ delicate and expressive singing. At times, during the cycle, her voice was slightly over-powered by the orchestra but, for the majority of the time, however, Karabits adroitly maintained firm control of the dynamics. The BSO’s playing of Frühling (Spring) was fresh and subtly romantic, Matthews’ ravishing voice soaring above the orchestra, perfectly capturing springtime optimism. In complete contrast, we were plunged into a mood of autumnal peace in September as summertime faded. Again, a light and elegant reading of the song, with a particularly fine horn solo by Nicolas Fleury, and a beautifully controlled orchestral ending. In Beim Schlafengehen (Going to sleep), Amyn Merchant’s violin solo was exquisitely played, setting the scene for a truly heart-rending close.

In Im Abendrot (At sunset), an elderly couple, hand in hand, watch the sun go down as two larks soar upwards into the sky. The BSO captured this scene perfectly, Karabits ensuring the performance never slipped into over-indulgence whilst allowing its inherent beauty to breathe. A moment of repose was held by the conductor before rapturous applause ensued in appreciation for this wonderfully moving performance.

The second half of this evening’s concert was devoted to Schubert's mighty Symphony no. 9 in C major. A notoriously challenging work for orchestras, this symphony demands huge reserves of physical energy and concentration. With four scheduled performances of the piece this week, the BSO is really taking up the challenge.

Once again, a fine horn solo from Fleury introduced the Andante section of the first movement which was taken at a relaxed and leisurely pace by Karabits. An exciting and well-handled accelerando and crescendo then launched us into the Allegro which was full of crisp rhythmic energy. Jaunty interludes by the woodwind were juxtaposed with insistent orchestral tuttis, the transitions between the two being smoothly handled without any loss of cohesion. After a long and expressive build-up with sweeping crescendos, we were treated to a thrilling end to the movement.

A light and playful approach to the march-like rhythm of the Andante con moto followed, highlights including a smoothly ‘sung’ hymn-like melody by the second violins, as well as a powerful and dramatically executed climax to the movement before it died away to a peaceful conclusion. The Scherzo was suitably vigorous with dashing and energetic string-playing, as well as a trio with a playfully buoyant performance from the woodwind. The real tour de force came with the Allegro vivace and Karabits didn’t disappoint, unleashing a whirlwind of energy, verve and vitality which elicted a roller-coaster ride of exciting playing from the BSO as a fitting climax to a terrific concert.