Prom 24: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits with Felix Klieser

Ivan Karabits
Concerto for Orchestra No. 1
‘A Musical Gift to Kyiv’
[UK premiere]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major

Sergei Rachmaninov
Symphony No. 2 in E-minor

Felix Klieser (horn)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 2 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

How long should principal conductors stay with their chosen orchestras? Long enough to make their mark. In the case of Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, fifteen years of a partnership, now drawing to a close, have seen some remarkable music-making, especially a widening of the traditional repertory to include less-familiar works from Eastern Europe. At the start of this concert there was a double tribute, both to Karabits Senior, whose three Concertos for Orchestra this band and this conductor recorded for Naxos back in 2013, and also to the city of Kyiv, its architectural features showcased in this first concerto.

Both in the opening piece and later in the main work, it was apparent how much the Bournemouth orchestra relies on good ensemble playing, with fine internal balances, supple strings, a pleasing blend to the woodwind choir as well as secure brass, the players working hand-in-glove to deliver a compact body of sound. Karabits’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 is not so much a dazzling display piece as an opportunity to encompass differing moods and to tap into richly expressive veins. It moves from the explosive force of the start, with trumpet fanfares and resplendent percussion, notably tubular bells, to a morendo conclusion with one of the two harps left in isolation echoing the earlier moments of an ethereal ascent floated by harps and celesta. The composer’s son shaped the melodic lines with care, the BSO playing with panache and commitment.

Felix Klieser, Artist-in-Residence with the BSO, is a quite remarkable player, using the toes of his left foot to play what can sometimes be an unforgiving and unreliable instrument. Because it is so exposed you hear even the tiniest of wobbles and fluctuations in what should ideally be a seamless line. Klieser’s horn sound is big and very open, producing a fruitiness which makes it distinctive, akin to the character of traditional hunting horns with which the final rondo of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 is infused. This was written for one of the composer’s close friends, the Viennese horn virtuoso Joseph Leutgeb, the music itself full of the love of whimsy which the two shared. Mozart even penned the score in a mixture of red, green, blue, and black inks, giving rise to speculation about possible hidden meanings. With his strong vibrato Klieser stressed the celebratory elements, his first movement cadenza, kept on the short side, displaying a full range of dynamics and tone. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the central Romanza in which the horn plays in both its lower and upper registers, here treated to a slightly busy approach. I can’t help feeling that Klieser is not always at his best when playing long, slow, and sustained lines. However, the love for his instrument shone through his encore, another hunting-style rondo from Mozart’s second horn concerto, also in E-flat major.

For all his command of the orchestra, Rachmaninov was notoriously ambivalent about the symphonic genre. Understandably so, given that, through no fault of his own, the premiere of his first symphony in 1897 was an unmitigated disaster, César Cui opining that it might have “delighted the inmates of Hell”.  Writing to a friend ten years later, as he completed the score of his second, he declared: “When I get it written – I give my solemn word – no more symphonies. Curse them! I don’t know how to write them, but mainly I don’t want to.”  Nor was his E minor work treated to a happy reception in the years following. In 1920 the American music critic Paul Rosenfeld compared the work to “a mournful banqueting on jam and honey”, his compatriot and composer Virgil Thomson dismissing it twenty-five years later as “mud and sugar”. Not the least of the ignominy was the way in which for many decades this long symphony was subject to cuts, some of which sanctioned by the composer himself, anxious to see this child of his flourish in one form or another.

Karabits took his time, coming in at just shy of an hour and without the repeat of the first-movement exposition. It was like witnessing the unfolding of a major novel of Tolstoyan proportions, the pages being slowly turned, the individual words and striking phrases savoured with satisfaction. Or the stretching of still-tired limbs in the bleak early-morning light, a slow awakening from the murk of the night. Throughout this performance I was aware of how much attention Karabits was paying to the structural elements in the score, the repeated appearance of the motto theme that dominates the work, the precision manifest in the fugal section of the Allegro molto second movement, the steady pacing and ascent to a central climax and the refusal to emote unnecessarily. 

Nor did he wallow in the glorious A major slow movement, choosing a basic pulse that was above the marked Adagio. A lot of space is often devoted to the important clarinet solo, almost certainly inspired by the Andante in Balakirev’s first symphony. Here it was played with distinctive poise by Barry Deacon, but in fact there were equally significant contributions from flute, oboe, cor anglais, horn and the leader of the orchestra, each adding further colour to the magnificent tapestry that Rachmaninov weaves at the emotional heart of this symphony. The Bournemouth strings do not have the lushness or heft of other ensembles, but they played softly and sweetly where it mattered. Quiet majesty is sometimes as satisfying as raucous celebration.

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