Glazunov From the Middle Ages: Prelude
Tanayev St John of Damascus
Shostakovich Symphony No 4
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
Kiril Karabits: Conductor
LAST month the BSO announced that Kiril Karabits would be ending his tenure as chief conductor in the summer of 2024 after 15 years. Karabits’s time in charge has been an huge success for the orchestra. The Ukranian is immensely popular with the orchestra and the loyal audiences in Poole and all over the South West.
The good news is that he will be staying on as Conductor Laureate and artistic director of the ‘Voices from the East’ programme, which will see Kiril continuing to introduce British audiences to hitherto unfamiliar music from Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics in the region. Last year, The Times wrote that thanks to the series, “music lovers in Dorset may now be the most knowledgeable in the western world about the symphonic pieces of eastern Europe and central Asia.”
Tonight’s concert saw Karabits tackling a very ambitious programme of lesser-known Ukranian and Russian music from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coupled with Shostakovich’s monumental 4th Symphony, written in 1935-6.
Karabits reversed the published order of the pieces on the programme, starting with a Nocturne by the Ukranian composer Akimenko, written in 1912. He explained that he was starting with this slow, meditative piece to give us a chance to remember that the war in Ukraine is now approaching its first year. It was beautifully played by the BSO’s string sections, with a moving solo for principal cellist Jesper Svedberg.
The orchestra then went straight into the second piece, the Prelude from Glazunov’s orchestral suite ‘From the Middle Ages’. This piece is a sonic picture of a storm raging around a castle, and a pair of lovers inside the castle so intent on one another that they are oblivious to their surroundings. The contrast between the two groups of material was very dramatic and well-pointed.
The spotlight then shifted to the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, in a performance of Tanayev’s cantata ‘John of Damascus’. First performed in 1884, the text has similarities to Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, in that it evokes a soul on his deathbed, awaiting what comes next with a mixture of faith, hope and fear. It is a beautiful and immediately accessible work which deserves to be much better known. The chorus, well prepared by Director Gavin Carr, handled the dynamic range with aplomb, and sang with intense feeling.
After the interval a very-well-filled programme was completed with Shostakovich’s astonishing and monumental 4th Symphony. It calls for an enormous orchestra including 60 string players, quadrupled woodwind, 2 tubas, 2 timpanists, 2 harps and 7 percussion players. At this period of his life, Shostakovich had been studying Mahler’s symphonies, and the influence shows very clearly in both the scale and ambition of the piece and the atmosphere and musical language. Karabits said that he had been waiting to conduct this symphony for some time, and only Covid had delayed this first-ever performance at the Lighthouse.
The symphony grips from beginning to end. The range of materials, textures and combinations is endlessly fascinating ranging from quiet moments when the BSO’s principals took the spotlight to overwhelmingly powerful passages when Karabits whipped up a sonic storm from the huge forces at his disposal.
The concert is available on the BSOlive website, and if you haven’t yet sampled this platform I would recommend it warmly. Just google ‘BSOlive’.