Piano Concerto No.2 in C-minor, Op.18
Antar, Symphonic Suite, Op.9
Alexander Malofeev (piano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 28 January, 2022
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, Hampshire
”The works of Rimsky-Korsakov may be conveniently divided into two groups: the over-played and the unknown.” So claimed the musicologist Richard Taruskin. Now Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have given a rare and long overdue performance of the composer’s Symphonic Suite, Antar, originally titled Symphony No.2. After its 1869 premiere, the composer tampered with the score several times and it was eventually issued as a Symphonic Suite in 1903. This was the version performed at the Anvil, its thirty minutes well-worth further hearings. Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (as the BSO was originally called) clearly thought so too when they gave three performances a century earlier on either side of the Great War.
Cast in four movements, the work’s striking combination of symphonic form and free fantasy draws inspiration from an oriental legend about the ancient poet/warrior Antar who in a dream rescues a gazelle in the desert. Within the first movementthe gazelle morphs into Gul-Nazar, Queen of Palmyra, who grants Antar the gifts of vengeance, power and love, each award occupying the subsequent movements. Despite grateful acceptance, his passion for the Queen abates and he dies in her arms. Unsurprisingly, the work’s oriental flavouring and use of recurring motifs anticipates Scheherazade. Karabits and the BSO clearly love the work, relishing the drama of the middle two movements (evoking vengeance and power) and fully realising its rhythmic impetus and vivid colouring. Brass and percussion made their presence, while a burnished string section (14,12, 10, 8, 6) added warmth. Thoughts of Antar’s death were soon abandoned with a stirring rendition of The Flight of the Bumblebee as an encore.
Mixed performances occupied the first half, which began with Unforged by Carmen Ho – winner of the 2018 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize. Conceived last autumn for the BSO and scored for medium-sized orchestra with an array of tuned percussion, the work felt like a compendium of techniques. But from its explosive first entry it held the attention with a succession of ear-catching sonorities variously shuddering and shimmering.
Up next was Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Alexander Malofeev. From the start this was a big-boned affair, the soloist lumbering through its bell-like opening and thereafter resisting the slightly faster pace Karabits clearly wanted. Despite Malofeev’s technical prowess, the first movement felt harried rather than treasured and, with the exception of some silken strings, the Adagio was a rather uneventful ‘day at the office’. The Finale brought some welcome sparkle even if tempo changes felt impulsive and the conclusion lacked that inevitable sense of release. As an encore Malofeev played a transcription from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, the ‘Pas de deux’.