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Prom 30 review: Bournemouth SO, Karabits - pagan fire and thunder | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 30 review: Bournemouth SO, Karabits - pagan fire and thunder

Prom 30 review: Bournemouth SO, Karabits - pagan fire and thunder

Prokofiev and Walton raise the roof thanks to a young choir on blazing form

Untangling Prokofiev: the Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits in a rarely heard cantata at the BBC Proms© Sasha Gusov

A Prom of unrelenting momentum began promisingly with Beethoven, and the false start that opens his First Symphony.

On this showing, Kirill Karabits has coached his Bournemouth musicians in the classical repertoire with a dash and flair that brings to mind a golden era for the orchestra under the stewardship of Rudolf Barshai in the 1980s. Metronome-mark tempi even outstripped his Russian predecessor, though diligent observance of accents, and delight in some of Beethoven’s naughty-boy antics, did not fully compensate for a pervasive lack of weight. We didn’t get much beyond the idea of the First as a teenage diary of a symphony, full of banter, sudden surly turns of mood, and general reluctance to do what’s asked of a good composer.

Greater heft and space would also have paid dividends in a businesslike account of the so-called Symphonic Fantasy cobbled together late in life by Richard Strauss from his most sublime opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten. As a meretricious if professional hack-job that served a purpose when the opera was hardly performed, it is now heard with undeserved frequency. Though Karabits conducted the fantasia with scarcely more affection than it deserves, and generally with one eye on the clock, he did at least open out for one of Strauss’s most radiant (if controversially rapt and extended) conclusions, and held the audience for a spell of silence which is increasingly rare at the Proms.

It was the weight of the choir’s tone that left the most positive impression

Enough is never enough: a wide streak of excess runs through the output of Prokofiev no less than his contemporary Strauss. Never more so than in Seven, They Are Seven, which made an impact out of all proportion to its seven-minute duration. Part ritual of calculated barbarity, part ear-splitting product of the new Constructivist age, the cantata – even if Prokofiev was reluctant to call it such – was written out quickly in 1917, the year after Prokofiev had produced his own take on the Rite of Spring with the Scythian Suite. Indeed the direct parallel is with Stravinsky’s even briefer cantata The King of the Stars; even if Prokofiev could not have heard his rival’s piece (it lay unperformed until 1939), he would have gained an impression through his friend and the writer of the texts for both of them, Konstantin Balmont.

In an astute bit of programming within the Russian Revolution thread running through the Proms this year, Seven, They Are Seven was entrusted to performers who have this tricksy idiom under their fingers after recording a cycle of Prokofiev symphonies (for Onyx) that compares favourably with many more storied rivals. The tenor David Butt Philip impressively withstood the terrific din behind him, much of it made by the excellent National Youth Choir of Great Britain.

Prom 30 review: Bournemouth SO, KarabitsMore than diction (though excellent) or ensemble (surviving a few rocky moments) it was the weight of the choir’s tone that left the most positive impression in another pagan roof-raiser. Walton wrote Belshazzar’s Feast for an army of singers even more numerous than the 160 members of the NYC, but there was none of the featherweight soprano or weedy tenor sound that can mark massed youth choirs.

Where big-band swing smashes queasily into cathedral oratorio, Karabits focused on garish orchestral colour more than rhythmic swing. Driving hard through the bends of recitative and chorus, with a few well-coordinated emergency brakes for effect, his approach was at odds with the modulated polish of the baritone James Rutherford (pictured above by Werner Kmetitisch). As befits a Hans Sachs of Bayreuth standard, he is too classy a singer to grandstand or hector; he brought vulnerability to the opening lament as much as finger-snapping flourish to the writing on the wall that spells Belshazzar’s downfall. If there’s a tendency almost throughout for the work to tip from upsetting the applecart of the English choral tradition into blatant vulgarity, it was resisted pretty well until the final chord, when the organ let rip and the brass brands really did blow up in the new moon.


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