Review: BSO’s ‘Monumental Brahms’

The Bournemouth Symphony orchestra brought another selection of outstanding work to Exeter University this last week. Their ‘Monumental Brahms’ concert, conducted by Kirill Karabits brought the titular composer together with Boris Lyatoshinsky in a remarkable and moving concert. I must admit, however, that Brahms is not a composer I am familiar with. It had been impressed upon me, through criticism of his work, that his music is too academic for someone who neither plays nor studies the art form. Indeed, I was alarmed upon reading the programme, while the orchestra tuned their instruments, where it casually informed me that Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 “makes enormous demands of all involved…the listener too”. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was ready to have such demands made of my musical ear and intellect that Thursday evening, however, as the first movement began, my fears were abated.

I had read up on the piece beforehand and I knew that it had taken five years to compose, with Clara Schumann acting as somewhat of a mentor to Brahms. I had assumed, therefore, that these five years had been taken up largely by technical endeavours (Brahms being just 25 at the time of its completion). Thus, the emotionality that the concerto begins with, and sustains throughout, caught me off guard. This was certainly not difficult-listening, and although I doubt I was able to garner much more than a basic emotional response, it was one of dizzied appreciation. The first movement was passionate and aggressive. Its enshrinement within strict classical forms lends the opening an unexpected accessibility, which allows the listener to become immersed within it. The movement is long, at over twenty minutes, and the piano does not enter the fray for the most part of this, tricking the listener into believing they are hearing a symphony. The introduction of the piano, however, muddies such familiar waters. Sunwook Kim explosively brought to life the conflict and conversation between orchestra and piano. His work ranged from subduing the other instruments and centering the attention on the piano, to skilfully working within the piece to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the concerto never reverted to, however, was the orchestra simply accompanying the piano. Throughout the mellowed and sadder second movement, both the piano and introductory bassoon rethought the earlier aggression into a contemplative adagio. Again, Kim’s piano worked intensely alongside the orchestra, and it was a pleasure not only to hear his playing but to see him captivated, driven, and so involved with the music. The final movement covered the broadest emotional range. This was the piece at its most Beethovian, and Karabits’ conduction drew out each theme perfectly, balancing the strength of each of the musical voices. By the third theme, the piano is by no means at the foreground, and is instead working to create an eclectic sensation that upon its culmination leaves the audience in awe of composer and performer alike.

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After the interval, having bid farewell to Sunwook Kim and his Steinway, we settled back in our seats for the second piece of the evening. I was unfamiliar with Brahms, but I was completely unaware of the next composer. So, thankfully, was almost everyone else, as this was the UK premiere of Boris Lyatoshinsky’s Symphony No.3. It is a piece of particular personal interest to Karabit, whose mother is the leading scholar on the Ukrainian composer. Although having not achieved the same fame in the West as many of his USSR-inhabiting contemporaries, Lyatoshinsky had his fair share of scandal. This piece, with its epithet of ‘Peace Defeats War’, was deemed bourgeois, and the final movement was censored by the state. The composer eventually rewrote the piece, but only after daringly opening a rehearsal of the original piece to the public. Knowing this, it’s hard to understand how he was permitted to go on composing, at least not without significant restraint and flattery. Yet Lyatoshinsky was awarded two Orders of Stalin during his lifetime – and on hearing his music, I realised why. From the first few notes of the brass section and the crash of symbols, it was clear that this was a piece dripping with the influence of Tchaikovsky, and equally the baroque sensibilities that Uncle Joe so favoured. Each movement perpetuated the theme of hope pitted against the horrors of war. From the lamentation of the strings to the power of the brass and drums, the juxtaposition was brought to a head by the orchestra, and taken to incredible heights. The controversial finale demonstrated the composer’s final vision of hope – but not of triumph.  The music is not pro-Soviet, but a reminder of an alternative future. One in which peace and optimism are triumphant, not authoritarianism. The bringing of this work to the UK by Karabits and the BSO is a powerful statement for free speech and perseverance, and demonstrates a refusal to shy away from the unknown. Classical music lovers in the South are in extremely talented, capable, and progressive hands.

– by Ben Britton

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