Mark-Anthony Turnage world premiere, BSO at Poole Lighthouse

Glière:            Les Sirènes
Turnage:        Testament
Prokofiev:      War and Peace Suite

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Kirill Karabits conductor
Natalya Romaniw soprano

EVEN by the standards that we’ve grown to expect from Karabits and the BSO, this concert really was something very special.  It was also a very personal concert for the Ukranian conductor, with all three works on the programme having a Ukranian theme.

The centrepiece of the evening was a world premier by Mark-Anthony Turnage, a leading English composer with a well-established international reputation.  Testament is a song cycle for soprano and orchestra, consisting of settings of English translations of four poems by Ukranian poets of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  There are also substantial orchestral passages in a work lasting about half an hour.  It was commissioned by the BSO and Staatskapelle Weimar, where Karabits is also in charge.

Turnage and Karabits quickly agreed that the work would have a Ukranian focus: Turnage writes ‘I decided to write a score focused on themes of displacement, conflict and the particular political history of Ukraine, which has often suffered oppression under the Russians’.  Rather than use the original Ukranian texts of the four poems, Turnage used English translations, and for an English audience, this gave the poems a direct, powerful and universal impact: in the final setting, ‘Take what matters’, I found myself thinking of Syria rather than the Ukranian refugees who inspired it.

The work is strongly, almost overwhelmingly, tragic in tone, unflinchingly depicting the ruined lives, meaningless deaths and despair of people who find themselves on the wrong side of history.  Turnage conjures a constantly-intriguing range of orchestral colour and tone from the orchestra with prominent contributions from harp, celesta, piano, tympani and five percussionists.  Anna Pyne’s flute and Tammy Thorne’s bassoon also made prominent solo contributions. The young Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw (whose grandfather was a Ukranian refugee from the Second World War) delivered the settings with power and clarity, her bell-like tones blending with the percussion-rich orchestration.

There is always the fear at a premiere that a first hearing will either puzzle or hint at meanings which could only emerge from familiarity.  However, I found this performance entirely satisfying.  Turnage speaks directly and emotionally to his audience in a language with which they are fully familiar, and the wildly enthusiastic response from a fullish Lighthouse audience evidenced this.  This important work deserves many more performances, and I hope it gets them.

I have little space to mention the rest of the programme, which almost deserves a separate review of its own.  We started with the Ukranian Glière’s 1908 tone poem Les Sirènes, which depicts the sirens of the Odyssey, their seductive song and their watery home with colourful and imaginative orchestration that reminded me of Debussy.  After the interval, we had an orchestral suite taken from the Ukranian Prokofiev’s 1947 opera War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s novel.  This was sumptuous, late-period Prokofiev, with echoes of the fifth and sixth symphonies but an almost filmic quality as glittering balls, freezing snowstorms and battles are vividly evoked.  As if this wasn’t all enough, the evening was rounded off by a dazzling encore, The Russian Sailor’s Dance from Glière’s The Red Poppy, taken by Karabits at a life-threateningly breakneck speed which the orchestra visibly relished coping with. Throughout the evening the orchestral playing and Karabits’s control of pace and dynamics were outstanding: what an achievement to have put this programme together, rehearsed four unfamiliar pieces, and to have performed them with such apparently effortless elan!


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