Born in 1876 in Kharkiv, north-east Ukraine, Feodor Akimenko is best remembered as the first harmony and composition teacher of the teenage Igor Stravinsky. Akimenko himself had been one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s favourite pupils, and in the first decades of the 20th century he worked as a composer, pianist and choral conductor in several countries across Europe before finally settling in France, where he died in 1945. After his death, his archives found their way into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and it was there that Kirill Karabits unearthed the full score of a Cello Concerto that Akimenko had composed in 1922, but which for unknown reasons had never been performed.
Karabits had intended to conduct the work’s first performance in Kharkiv earlier this year, but the Russian invasion put paid to that, and so it became the centrepiece of the concert with which he opened the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s new season. Victor Julien-Laferrière was the soloist, and two violinists from the orchestra that had been scheduled to give the Kharkiv premiere joined the BSO for the concert.
At little over a quarter of an hour, the three-movement concerto is a modest piece. Its musical language is late Romantic, perhaps owing more to Tchaikovsky than to any other composer, and for the most part the solo cello is lyrical rather than showy, with the central Andante its expressive centre of gravity. In the Lighthouse’s dry acoustic, balance was sometimes problematic, with the cello line regularly submerged by the orchestra, though whether through reticence on Julien-Laferrière’s part or miscalculations in the scoring was hard to judge.
Karabits had begun the concert with early Stravinsky, the Scherzo Fantastique, veering between a Russian version of a Mendelssohnian scherzo and anticipations of the magical world of The Firebird composed just three years later, and he completed it with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Both in their very different ways were outstanding performances, the Stravinsky fleet and transparent, the symphony steered faultlessly by Karabits and featuring some outstanding solo contributions, especially from the orchestra’s principal horn, Alexander Wide. Above all though, they underlined what a fine ensemble the BSO is nowadays.