Reliable Russian Repertoire

Members of Sound UNIon, our student ticket scheme, have been reviewing some of our recent concerts.  Lucia D’Avanzo attended last week’s concert with Kirill Karabits and Barry Douglas at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall:


SHOSTAKOVICH              Festive Overture
RACHMANINOV               Piano Concerto No.2
PROKOFIEV                       Symphony No.5

Kirill Karabits · conductor
Barry Douglas · piano

Concert programming techniques are changing on the classical music scene.  Many orchestras and companies now offer alternatives to the traditional mould, with events such as short concerts with drinks, lecture-recitals and films with live soundtracks.  Against this trend, it is good to see orchestras such as the RPO celebrating the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format popularised over the last hundred years.  Although I play in them regularly, it has been about a year or so since I have actually attended a “normal” orchestral concert.

Ukrainian Kirill Karabits, principal conductor of Bournemouth’s lively Symphony Orchestra, took to the podium at the Royal Festival Hall for this programme of popular Russian gems.  It was refreshing to see such a young Maestro, dressed in a black suit with upturned collar, and with much more hair than in his promotional photo!

The evening opened energetically with a tantalising whistle-stop tour of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.  The increasingly jubilant brass fanfare at the opening dissolved to reveal incredibly tight flourishes in the winds and strings.  The communication between the players was captivating to watch and this heightened awareness allowed the players to have fun, the cellos even laughing at the twists and turns in the music.  This was especially enjoyable to watch considering classical musicians are often accused of taking themselves too seriously.  Semiquavers flew around the hall and we passed through a cheeky pizzicato section before a slower, almost Waltonesque theme.  Approaching the finishing line, I worried that any more enthusiasm from the timpanist would send his beaters into the choir stalls behind him!

As the 1st violins left to allow the piano to be rolled on, an excited buzz from the enthralled audience filled the hall.  Looking around me I was glad to see a packed and diverse room full of music lovers of all ages.  I also used this time to read some of the programme.  One quote regarding the next work, Rachmaninov’s much-loved Second Piano Concerto, caught my eye:

‘I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien.  I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new’.

Rachmaninov’s words are very apt for students reading this blog.  I have seen many of my composer colleagues struggle in their first few years at Music College to find their own personal voice whilst striving to fit with current trends.  It is encouraging to learn that a composer as successful as Rachmaninov had the same struggles.  It was also comforting as an instrumentalist to read that Rachmaninov’s teacher, with whom he lived for a short time, made him practise three hours a day.  So many musicians seem to forget that quality is better than quantity and that nine hours of brainless repetition is often less help than three hours of focused work!

I was interested to see what kind of soloist Irish pianist Barry Douglas was, considering he often directs orchestras from the keyboard.   His opening seemed to start from far away, drawing us in before growing to fill the hall.  The strings blended beautifully, introducing the first movement’s main theme in octaves and creating the musical equivalent of a warm bath for the audience.

Control was handed to the principal flute and clarinet at the start of the Adagio Sostenuto, freed by Douglas’s flexible yet well-moulded weaving accompaniment.  The piano then rose to take the limelight in solo interludes without disturbing the calm atmosphere.  The general pause at the end of the central section was handled expertly: many virtuosi would use such a moment to draw attention to themselves in anticipation of the following solo passage, but here the silence just opened a door on Douglas’s personal world, the pause feeling completely natural as his hands floated to the lower regions of the piano.  Humbly hunched over the keys, Douglas let the music speak for itself.

Rather than leaving us to bask in the stillness at the end of the movement, Karabits pounced on the last movement Scherzo like an excitable child.  He obviously enjoyed the moto perpetuo and encouraged the whole orchestra (and audience!) to join him.  The energy returned after a more docile central section before a massively romanticised version of the melody, bringing this captivating journey to a close.

Despite taking the soloistic freedom given them by Douglas boldly and graciously, the orchestra were incredibly sensitive to the piano’s solo lines, even when Douglas chose to use the gentlest of colours.  In keeping with his humility, Douglas, in a black suit and t-shirt, beckoned the orchestra to bow but Karabits rightly refused.  Douglas had brought Rachmaninov’s work to life through his sensitive interpretation.

In contrast to the struggles felt by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev rattled his Fifth Symphony off in just one month!  Karabits returned to the stage with great stage presence and poise despite his diminutive size, which I think is achieved by the way he stands: feet apart with squared, straight legs that power a nervous energy which drives the orchestra in a bubbling yet controlled way.

Simple flute and bassoon in bare octaves opened the work, underscored by a bagpipe-like effect in the lower strings.  We were transported into Prokofiev’s trademark sound world of hope with a tinge of unrest.  The orchestra’s incredible ability to blend reminded me of a comment made by a past professor of mine – that ‘a composer creates new instruments by mixing their sounds together like ingredients in a recipe’.  The orchestra’s sounds were constantly changing and, later in the movement, the power of the brass and percussion was really felt as they drove us to one of those endings that just makes you want to clap, even though you know you shouldn’t!

The opening of the second movement reminded me of Romeo and Juliet, written eight years earlier, with lithe and playful strings and a mischievous jumpy theme introduced in the clarinet.  Karabits held the tension, keeping the music on its toes with energetic simplicity.  In parts, it sounded like Karabits was opening a door on a jazz club, the orchestra having the freedom to really let themselves go before being reigned in again. 

The third movement began with a glassy, heartfelt string texture which framed the bolder central material.  I found it amusing to see one percussionist reclining as though waiting for a bus as his colleagues were giving it their all on the tam-tam, bass drum and cymbals – for him, it is just another day at work!  With the return to the opening material I felt that perhaps the pleasant simplicity of the piece had gone on a bit too long.  This continued into the start of the final movement, but this was more a drawback of the piece: for me, Prokofiev’s musical language works best in programmatic form and the slower sections of the symphony seemed to amble around the same trademark colours a bit too absent-mindedly.

After the sober opening, the last movement crept back to life.  The playfulness returned, with rustic open E strings in the scurrying violins and particularly characterful oboes and clarinets.  Karabits pushed towards the close with an exciting build in dynamic and drive, high woodwinds evoking memories of Italian marching bands.  All of a sudden, the orchestra fell away to reveal a brief moment of frenzied string solos, before a glorious rush of sound to the end.

The sounds and rhythms of the closing bars remained in my head for hours following the concert, thanks to the infectious energy of Karabits and the RPO.


About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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