Fountains of Rome
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Sarah Chang (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 21 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Kirill Karabits, from the Ukraine, now in his mid-thirties and developing a meaningful relationship with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, clearly has a view on the music he conducts as well as the means to achieve it, but his current take on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony must be regarded as an interpretative ‘work-in-progress’. The emotionally complex first movement lacked depth of conviction, the Royal Philharmonic pressed into service rather than inspired (and not without the odd dicey moment), Karabits dragging some sections (the balletic passages were stiff) and harrying others; a precipitate account that failed to go beyond the printed notes. Lacking a collective soul as well as being too-bright and treble-dominated (a trumpet and a trombone additional to Tchaikovsky’s requirements not helping good balance as well as seeming a budgetary excess), the first movement’s lack of structural backbone was costly to its progress and integration, some melodrama in the coda rather added-on, and making the finale anything but a rebuttal of fate. The middle movements fared better, the second one opening with a beguiling oboe solo (felicities from the RPO’s woodwinds were notable throughout), although Karabits’s fondness for dynamic and tempo contrasts rather undermined its burgeoning warmth of expression and quelled its latter-stage darkness. The third movement was a great success though, perfectly paced, with precise yet buoyant pizzicatos and with a cavalcade of characters paraded in the trio.
Karabits proved an adept accompanist, and needed to be for Sarah Chang’s wayward reporting of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto (it hardly seems worth putting “No.1” anymore!). Chang was, shall we say, capricious, toying with the piece as well as indulging bodily contortions and poses. Hers was a husky-sounding, rubato-heavy performance (the operative word) that was sometimes invasive to the line of the piece; when the RPO cut loose in the first movement, it seemed out of frustration. The slow movement (well, andante rather than the marked Adagio) was unsettled, its heartfelt simplicity mislaid, and the finale (however energetic) found her playing smudged, scrappy and soaked in vibrato. There was little partnership to speak of, rather a willingness on the part of conductor and orchestra to stick with her (not always achieved), and despite some nicely observed half-lights and understatement on Chang’s part, the overriding impression was of someone who has played this ubiquitous (if endearing) piece rather too often and has lost intuitive contact with it.
Fountains of Rome had opened the concert in wonderful fashion, a fourth trombone not required but joining-in nonetheless, but at least the three trumpets were at the composer’s request. From dawn to dusk in fifteen minutes, a Roman day marked at specific times by four different fountains, Respighi’s extravagant and opulent orchestration (including piano, organ, two harps, celesta, and bass clarinet) was here made atmospheric and suggestive, and often delicately traced and beautifully clarified without being clinical, Karabits’s lucid conducting drawing an outstanding response from the RPO, whether in the quicksilver reactions needed for ‘Triton Fountain in early morning’ or the solemn if orgiastic grandeur that signals ‘Trevi Fountain at noon’. In the piece’s opening woodwind and horns solos were captivating, and, come sunset, tinkling harps, bells, celesta and glockenspiel were particularly evocative. This was a considered, polished and picturesque orchestral feast.