Review: ‘Outstanding’ Czech Mates with the BSO

Kirill Karabits, image courtesy of the BSO.

Paul Valentine reviews the recent performance of Czech Mates by the BSO, conducted by Kiril Karabits, piano by Sunwook Kim, and Amyn Merchant, Leader.

The performance comprised Suk Scherzo, Fantastique and Dvorak’s Piano Concerto and Symphony No 5 (3).

There are a huge number of fantasy pieces for orchestra, but the Suk and Rachmaninov are particular favourites. Over the years many friends have said the pieces have a ‘spinal’ similarity. Personally, I believe that they are not only dissimilar but antithetically so. One expects Rachmaninov to be inward looking and somewhat pensive, whilst the Suk is exuberant and and full of outward incident.

The Suk isn’t easy. The orchestration can only be described as wonderful – and it is a real shame it is not played more often. Of course this piece is right up Karabits’ street; a challenge, intense and full of emotion. This was just fabulous: crisp, delicious, utterly full of youthful testosterone. I would have paid the admission price for this alone.

Both Karabits and the BSO – ‘outstanding’!

I have never been a huge fan of the romantic piano concerto. Having already mentioned testosterone, I’m sure you get what I mean. That said, I do adore Shostokovich’s and Ravel’s. The Dvorak, though, seems to answer a musical question with another question. It is in many ways enigmatic, touching – it seems to me – deeply held ideas about nostalgia and loss. Frankly, after the first movement, my brain needs a rest. The second movement doesn’t help, although there is a beautiful interplay several bars in which appears too short. No doubt Karabits saw the challenge of ‘such a vast canvas’. The piece was brilliantly played by Sunwook Kim, with the orchestra responding superbly well. There was a good attempt to stitch the orchestra around the piano, but one wonders whether it was worth such Herculean effort.

Maybe this was one for the aficionados rather than great unwashed, in which I most definitely include myself.

I’m writing this on a train and drinking a free ‘touch of fruit’ bottle of water given out at the station. I am trying to work out what the ingredients are, listed only as ‘natural rhubarb flavouring’. I agree there’s a natural flavouring, it’s just not rhubarb. Fritz Simrock did something similar in 1888. In order to boost sales, he came up with a purely fictitious opus number, and we have been struggling with Dvorak symphony numbers ever since. Capitalism was ever thus, I hear you say. In truth, this was his first seminal symphony and was really his third (always look for number in the bracket).

Dvorak’s fifth (3) is distilled Czechoslovakia (as was). The opening bars of this symphony, I believe, are the most positive in orchestral music. It is a wonderful first movement which would undoubtedly have answered the numerous questions posed in the piano concerto. Karabits plays this movement in an intensely lyrical way, on par and occasionally surpassing those passages of Schumann’s Rhenish. It always amazes me when a conductor is able to get to the very heart of a piece and draw out its nakedness and relevance. This is a point I will return to.

The beautiful Andante begins a pensive but happy evening by the Vltava River. This clever movement draws on elements of the first and gives a predictive glimpse into the coming movement. There are clever references to the ‘city of a hundred spires’ through the bells motif. The third movement is a wonderful dance, but Karabits turned it into a festival, a whole community coming together in ecstasy. The last movement is an apotheosis: superbly orchestrated, and Karabits so precise at times, it resembles the mighty Jupiter symphony of Mozart! The wonder is that Karabits distinguishes the formal playing by the strings to a kind of languid almost drunken play. This is clearly a reflection of the former movement, maybe the morning after, but the way in which it is delivered is absolute brilliance. In this last movement Karabits demonstrates his keen balance between the highest technical production, and the intellectual ability to understand the composer’s innermost thoughts. This movement was an absolute masterpiece and it was rounded off with perfect aplomb.

So back to Karabits’ ability to get right to the heart of the matter. I have seen next year’s programme: some good things, one bad thing. The bad thing is the lack of late romantic French composers.

I remember some time ago now, it may well have been Karabits’ second year, and he performed Debussy’s ‘La Mer’. My eyes were closed and, I kid you not, I became worried I might be drenched with water, as each cascade missed me. It was simply fabulous!

So I’m closing this fantastic BSO season with a plea for more please…


You can read all of Paul Valentine’s BSO reviews here and keep an eye out for the return of his reviews next season! In the meantime, check out what’s on at Portsmouth Guildhall, including comedy, music, community events and exhibitions.