Soaring Strauss at the Lighthouse

revsbsoRobert LevinBournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Kirill Karabits: Conductor
Robert Levin, Piano

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No 1 “Classical”
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C
R STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra

The next CD in the BSO’s much-praised cycle of Prokofiev symphonies will consist of the first two symphonies and the Sinfonietta. We had heard a memorable account of the modernist onslaught of the 2nd Symphony in March: now we were in for the more tranquil and genial 1st. Conceived as the kind of symphony Haydn might have written had he found himself time-warped to the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 Petrograd, the symphony seems astonishingly unaffected by the historical circumstances of its composition. 1917 is very early for a neo-classical work: we often associate the style with the rather cool and cerebral approach of Stravinsky, and many performances of this symphony lack emotional warmth. Karabits took the first movement in a broad, genial, relaxed manner, and as a result a wealth of orchestral detail was suddenly clearer. The second movement continued the approach: a beautiful bassoon solo emerged, and more detail stood clear in the lovingly-shaped third movement. The finale, with a more expected brisk tempo, rounded off a revelatory performance: the audience were spellbound, and would not stop applauding until the ever-diffident Karabits had been drawn back to the podium twice.

Next came Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto. The soloist was the American Robert Levin, who has combined a career as an academic (currently professor of music at Harvard) with a parallel career as a performer. Specialising in the Classical period repertoire, his trademark improvised embellishments and cadenzas were entertainingly on display in this engagingly-spontaneous sounding performance. Improvising along with the orchestra right from the start of the orchestral introduction of the first movement, Levin had something of the showmanship of Shelley Berg, who thrilled us with the jazziest Gershwin Rhapsody ever to have hit Poole last season.

After the interval the orchestral numbers almost doubled for Richard Strauss’s 1896 tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. Everyone has heard the first two minutes, a musical depiction of sunrise used unforgettably in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001. And what startling music it is: four bars of deep rumblings from Bass Drum, Double Basses, Contrabassoon and Organ slashed through first by trumpets then then whole mighty symphony orchestra. The rising figure of the sunrise is developed symphonically in the much of the remaining half-hour of music, loosely based on Nietzsche’s book of the same name and conceived by Strauss as a portrait of human progress. In performance the progamme is less important than the purely musical experience, and this was intriguing, with Strauss’s usual mastery of orchestration in dividing the massed strings into subgroups and solos. Karabits guided the players through the maze of the score with a firm and authoritative hand.


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