Kirill Karabits is in the middle of a run of Boris Godunov performances in Zurich, where technological miracles allow him, the orchestra and chorus to be piped into the opera house from a rehearsal studio 1km away. Perhaps utilising Skype could be the solution for those conductors – Karabits included – prevented from being with their regular charges due to quarantine restrictions. For the second week in a row, Karabits had to forego waving his arms around in front of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, but his fingerprints were all over this fascinating programme, conducted in his stead by Martyn Brabbins.

Chris Avison
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

In recent seasons, Karabits has taken audiences on a voyage to his Ukrainian homeland in his Voices from the East series which has turned the spotlight on seldom heard composers such as Boris Lyatoshinsky and the Armenian Avet Terterian. Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto is relatively well known on the concert circuit – tonight’s soloist, Chris Avison, played it two years ago at the Bournemouth Pavilion – but the name Théodore Akimenko is unlikely to ring too many bells. 

Fyodor Akimenko (he presumably adopted Théodore when he spent his final 19 years living in Paris) was born in 1876 and was a student of Mily Balakirev and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. From 1903, he taught at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he was Igor Stravinsky’s first composition teacher. Akimenko’s Angel, an attractive “poem-nocturne” composed in 1912, based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, opened the programme. Immediately, one could detect Rimsky’s influence, from the crystalline orchestration to the sinuous clarinet melody near the start. Brabbins teased out the delicacy of the score persuasively, the BSO’s strings on silky form. 

Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto is from a completely different era. Like his fellow Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, Arutiunian knew when to toe the party line and in 1949 was awarded the Stalin Prize. Also like Khachaturian, his music has a boisterous, upbeat quality. Avison, the BSO’s principal trumpet, dashed through the faster sections with nimble articulation and clean tone, a polished sound rather than the abrasive Soviet brass school of yore, the muted sections smokily “bluesy”. It’s a real crowd-pleaser and the small, socially-distanced audience in Poole’s Lighthouse lapped it up, as – I trust – did the considerably larger online attendance which had stumped up their £6 (a real bargain). 

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a much more familiar name, but his Second Symphony doesn’t get many outings. More’s the pity because it’s a joyous piece, littered with Ukrainian folksongs that caused the critic Nikolay Kashkin to dub it the Little Russian (Little Russia being the then traditional term for Ukraine), hence its inclusion in Karabits’ programme. Brabbins and the BSO gave a disciplined reading – a little more exuberance wouldn’t have gone amiss – but there were fine solos, particularly from guest principal horn, Alex Wide, in the variant on Down by Mother Volga which opens the first movement (soulfully echoed by bassoon Tammy Thorn). 

The little Andantino marziale strutted along lightly, but the third movement Scherzo didn’t exactly scamper (although Brabbins still took it faster than Karabits’ BSO recording). After its faux-pompous brass fanfare, the finale based on the Ukrainian folksong The Crane rattled along infectiously. It wasn’t without its smudges, although it’s worth factoring in that the necessary distancing between players must make tight ensemble much harder to achieve, and also that the BSO is the only British symphony orchestra thus far streaming its concerts live and in front of an audience, rather than pre-recorded and (in some cases) patched. Fingers crossed that Karabits completes his post-Zurich quarantine in time for his next scheduled appearance in Poole in early November.

This performance was reviewed from BSO's video stream