Voices from the East, a series of concerts featuring composers from Russia and Ukraine who are little known in the west, has run through Kirill Karabits’s years as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor. Proud Ukrainian though he is, he has persisted with these programmes over the last year, and the latest included three more revivals, alongside what is arguablythe greatest and most challenging of Shostakovich’s symphonies.
One of the composers that Karabits has particularly championed has been Feodor Akimenko – he gave the world premiere of the Ukrainian’s recently unearthed cello concerto last autumn – and Karabits began here with Akimenko’s tiny Nocturne, whose central cello solo might well have been intended for the same player as the concerto. It’s a slight piece, but as Karabits said, with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion only days away, it acquired extra, poignant significance.
If the stormy Prelude from Glazunov’s 1902 suite From the Middle Ages would not seem out of place in a Hollywood score from the 1930s, then Sergei Taneyev’s cantata St John of Damascus is a thoroughly serious work, composed in 1884 as a memorial to Taneyev’s teacher Nikolai Rubinstein, and designated as his Op 1. It’s a setting of a text by Aleksey Tolstoy, with choral writing that’s permeated with the inflections of Russian Orthodox chant; there’s nothing remarkable about the piece except perhaps its sure-footedness, but the performance from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus ensured that it made an impression.
Yet it was the torrential performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony that followed which defined the evening, almost wiping out memories of what had come before it. This was Karabits and his orchestra (substantially enlarged for the occasion) at their very finest, a perfect example of what he has achieved on the south coast. There was no flinching at the fierceness of the opening movement – the nearest Shostakovich ever came to expressionism – or at its constantly evolving form, in which nothing is conventional; the finale which opens with a Mahlerian funeral march, and then keeps trying to turn itself into a gallop, had just the brittleness required. Every department of the BSO was outstanding, though the bassoon solos, in a work whose tragedy seems defined by that instrument, deserve a special mention. I’ve not heard Karabits do anything better in Poole.