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Ionarts-at-Large: BBC Symphony Orchestra

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from Barbican Hall in London.

Friday, February 24th, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented an enticing program of early 20th-century music from northern climes at the Barbican , with Kirill Karabits conducting. This included the Sibelius Symphony No. 4, the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1, and Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Karabits took a slow, deliberate approach to the Sibelius. The deep, dark, rich strings opened with great warmth, layered in beautifully, until the chill of the brass finely cut across the velvety texture. Karabits’ leisurely pace allowed for maximum clarity without stasis. This symphony is noted for its bleakness, but this interpretation more warmed the heart than it chilled the spine. Sibelius is usually focused on the mysteries of nature; this performance was closer to the mysteries of the heart.

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J.Sibelius, Symphonies 4 & 5,
H.v.Karajan / BPh

I have experienced the Fourth Symphony with more drama and eeriness (though the drama was in no way stinted in the final movement), but this was a very satisfying way to hear this sometimes enigmatic, but never less than intriguing music – in which Sibelius ends two of the four movements in media res; it stops rather than ends. In his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Karabits showed that he was very much in control and could accomplish anything he wished with the very responsive orchestra. The clarity he achieved would have been undermined by anything less than first class playing that he received.

From the meditative Sibelius, Karabits moved to the snap and crackle of the Prokofiev Concerto No.1, aided by the wildly percussive and charmingly lyrical pianism of Khatia Buniatishvili. Together, they played with verve, humor, and panache. The finale was particularly exhilarating. Buniatishvili rewarded the audience’s ovation with a stunningly well executed encore of the finale of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata.

Karabits’ talent for detail was abundantly evident again in Petrushka, which was given a viscerally exciting, rhythmically razor-sharp performance. The conductor had the BBC Symphony Orchestra turning on a pin. However, this was more than a tour de force. As Robert Craft once said, "Stravinsky is the composer of joy. His music is joyful, whether it is the Symphony of Psalms or something else." Karabits and the BBC players brilliantly captured that joy.

I did not learn until after the performance that this was Karabits’ first appearance with the BBCSO. Not his last, I reckon. RRR

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