Under guest conductor Kirill Karabits (normally associated with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse presented the opening concert of this year’s Franco-russes Festival. Once one of the most recorded orchestras in France, with only two Musical Directors since 1968 (Michael Plasson and the current post holder Tugan Sokhiev), the Toulouse players responded keenly to this all-Prokofiev programme, showcasing their talents to advantage in the Lieutenant Kijé Suite, notwithstanding the dry acoustic of the Halle aux Grains.

Kirill Karabits conducts the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
© Patrice Nin

Karabits drew from his Toulouse players a measured degree of magical fantasy endowed in Kijé’s fictitious life, its music originally conceived as a film score for release in 1934. There was much to admire from the smooth-as-silk off-stage cornet and jaunty piccolo, its toy soldiers sardonically conjured in the opening march. A smoky tenor saxophone added to the soulfulness of the Romance, the wedding scene was nicely irreverent, but the wintry sleigh ride of the Troika was too earthbound to convey a frenzied dash through the snow. More convincing was the final lament, woodwind soloists suitably elegiac for Kijé’s burial, strings neatly agile in their ironic response and a haunting cornet bringing this score and its illusory protagonist to a peaceful close.

Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
© Patrice Nin

There’s irony too in Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, a wartime score from 1944, regarded as a blazing hymn to the enduring spirit of humanity. The composer wrote it in an artists’ retreat north of Moscow while Soviet troops pushed west toward Berlin and said he wanted the music to “sing of mankind free and happy”. In this performance, Karabits underlined a breezy triumphalism, unease or sarcasm eschewed for a straight-up account reflecting his belief (according to the booklet notes from his 2015 Onyx recording of this symphony) that Prokofiev “writes about the positive, about the happiness that may exist even at such terrible times”. This performance was not untypical of Karabits with a momentum-filled and passionately wrought first movement; baying brass and tensile strings to the fore, although its big climaxes never quite stood out from the overall density of tone. If the sheer élan of the music was missing, there was no doubting a sense of an enemy vanquished.

There followed a motoric Scherzo (its music originally recycled from the ballet Romeo and Juliet), which zipped along persuasively; by turns insouciant and sardonic, the return of its main theme building with accumulating excitement. Nobility of expression made for an engrossing slow movement, Karabits probing its dark intent with clear-sighted purpose and afterwards bringing scintillation and mechanistic mayhem to the Finale, joyous in its victory parade celebration. On the basis of this gripping performance perhaps it’s time the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse added this symphony to its growing discography of music by Russian composers.

This performance was reviewed from the Orchestre national du Capitole live video stream