Premiered in 1909, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 was, he said, “a concerto for elephants” - with its massive chords, cascading and leaping octaves, high-speed runs, dense counterpoint, and wide spaced textures, it does demand a pianist with strength, dexterity, control and stamina.

Sunwook Kim © Doh Lee
Sunwook Kim
© Doh Lee

Kirill Karabits’ set a leisurely pace for the first movement with a palpable sense of ease between soloist Sunwook Kim and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra very apparent.  As the movement took flight, Kim immediately demonstrated his technical mastery of this fiendishly difficult piece (Josef Hofmann, the virtuoso pianist for whom the piece was written, never actually performed the work because of its huge demands on the soloist).

Whilst at times the piano was slightly overpowered by the orchestra, Kim and the orchestra demonstrated their growing synergy, underlining Kim’s assertion that he was more like a member of the orchestra than a guest soloist.  As has been noted in the past, “too often the pianist flies ahead, unconcerned about the orchestra’s melodic line…”, whereas this performance demonstrated the exact opposite with both orchestra and soloist playing as one, very much eliciting a performance as Rachmaninov intended (ie “a conversational exchange between piano and orchestra”). The complex structure of the piece was played with crystal clarity, Karabits ensuring a very precise and measured performance although, at times, Kim perhaps needed to ensure a little more clarity to his solo part. A slightly brisker pace would also have ensured more cohesion to a very long first movement. The enormous cadenza, which is more of an essential part of the structure than the norm, displayed Kim’s consummate virtuosity and, in what must have been a nerve-wracking first-time performance of the work, did him credit. A short coda led to a well-executed ending played with the utmost lightness and delicacy.

A beautifully played oboe solo set the intended melancholic mood for the second movement.  The sudden intrusion of the piano heralded more emotional turbulence with Kim demonstrating a wide range of skill from subtle delicacy to fierce bravura, the music ranging from music of elegiac beauty to virtuosic grandeur and romanticism in Rachmaninov’s rich sweeping melodies.

A dramatic coda, dispatched adroitly with panache, led into a vigorous Finale which was both rhythmically crisp and exciting. It very much felt as though Karabits and Kim had been holding everything in reserve for this movement, a thrilling, roller-coaster ride of emotion to the very end. In the contrasting episodes, there was a blend of humour, playfulness and reflection; Kim again showed the huge range of his pianistic talent in the set of four variations squeezed into the overall structure of the movement. Perhaps a slightly brisker pace would have ensured greater cohesion to an already episodically structured movement. As we progressed, the romanticism and passion built with a total, white-hot concentration and focus from all on the concert platform. In the wonderfully extended cadenza, Karabits and Kim luxuriated in Rachmaninov’s sumptuous romanticism – although a touch more rubato would have elicited a greater sense of romantic freedom and passion. Nevertheless, a fine performance and the exhilarating round-off to the piece was crisply dispatched, prompting rapturous applause from the audience.

The audience was then treated to an unprecedented form of encore! Extra musicians arrived, Karabits passed the baton to Kim, the piano lid was closed and our pianist for the evening became conductor, mounting the podium to conduct a warm and romantic rendering of the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony. First performed in 1947, having been composed in the aftermath of the war, this symphony grabs the audience from the outset with the composer’s own unique sound-world and, in this case, a mood of tragic melancholy. Powerful, detached chords herald the first movement and its downbeat mood, replete with strident, agitated aggressive marches.  Karabits and the BSO have become familiar partners in Prokofiev, and tonight’s performance did much to enhance their well-deserved reputation. The conductor's superb intuitive grasp and understanding of Prokofiev's music ensured a great sense of shape, continuity and cohesion to a work which could otherwise feel somewhat disparate. With crystal clarity, great rhythmic energy and unswerving enthusiasm, the complex, multi-layered percussive texture of the movement was finely played, effortlessly generating a sense of dread and foreboding. A fine horn solo provided a brief respite before the sinister mood resumed with rumblings and grumblings from the piano, bass drum and strings, leading to a well-executed, peaceful ending.

The Largo created a truly over-whelming sense of bewilderment and despair, Karabits generating wave after wave of hypnotic intensity which never faltered. The trumpet solo piercing through the orchestra and soaring through the hall was a particular highpoint.  The second, wistful theme was beautifully played by cellos with warmth but tinged with regret and nostalgia. As the music builds, the horns’ solo passage was particularly evocative. Following a return to the tragic mood of the opening, the movement then ended peacefully.

A cracking pace was set for the final Vivace, with its insistent toe-tapping energy.  Throughout, the orchestra was alert to the challenges presented, with Karabits ever-eager to showcase Prokofiev’s distinctive musical wit and humour. Rhythmically crisp, full of energy, the “Classical” beginning to the movement slowly unravelled in a well-judged disintegration of order, leading to a truly frantic, tumultuous and shattering ending. The sheer brashness and arrogance of the music was particularly well executed. Not only a stand-out piece of music but a compelling, first- rate performance from Karabits and his orchestra to round off a superb evening of music-making.

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