Back in the USSR


Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Kirill Karabits: Conductor
Valeriy Sokolov: Violin

DURING his time at the helm of the BSO, we have seen Kirill Karabits expand his repertoire enormously, but conducting the works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the twin giants of Soviet-era Russian music, has always been his particular forte.

He has regularly inspired the orchestra to impassioned and idiomatic performances of their music, so expectations for this concert were very high. A year ago, almost to the day, I was writing an enthusiastic review of Valeriy Sokolov’s performance of Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto.

While the Shostakovich concerto is an intense and profound masterpiece, the Prokofiev 2nd, written in 1935, is more lyrical and approachable.  It was written at about the same time as some of Prokofiev’s best-known music, such as Romeo and Juliet and Peter and the Wolf, and shares their immediate appeal.  Sokolov was utterly at home with this music, a Ukrainian playing music by composer born in Ukraine and conducted by a fellow-Ukrainian. The second movement, a courtly slow waltz, was very winning, as was the scurrying finale, when the hyperactive violin is accompanied by some original orchestration including bass drum and castanets.

Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony, written in 1943, emerged from the unimaginable horrors of the USSR’s experience of Nazi invasion, and the consequent deaths of more than 20 million of its inhabitants. It is a suitably sombre and at times violently intense work, which got its composer into ill-favour from Stalin for failing to adopt the triumphalist tone he was expecting.  There has been debate as to whether the symphony is truly ‘about’ the horrors of the Second World War or whether it was a covert attack on the brutal repressions and purges of Stalin in the thirties.  Surely it is time for this astonishing work to break free of the context of its composition and be accepted as absolute music with a tragic universality, in the way that we no longer think that Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is ‘about’ Napoleon.

The BSO’s performance was a complete tour de force, with outstanding playing from all sections. The many solo passages, for Owain Bailey’s piccolo, Holly Randall’s cor anglais, Chris Avison’s trumpet, Nicolas Fleury’s horn and many others were utterly nailed, and the ensemble playing never faltered. Karabits gave the sometimes-overlooked viola section a special call at the end. The symphony emerged as a titanic tragedy, with overwhelming, agonised climaxes separated by bleak, nihilistic musings.

Listeners on Radio 3 will have been as blown away as we in audience were. Karabits is presiding over a golden age of this outstanding orchestra: book to hear them live if you haven’t already!  This is music-making at its finest, and it’s on our doorstep in Poole.


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