Controlled Screaming and Sublime Effort: Mahler’s 5th at Portsmouth Guildhall

The finest concert Paul Valentine has attended to date is Walton’s Viola Concerto and Second Symphony performed by the LSO and conducted by the late André Previn. Walton was in attendance looking on from the Royal Box. For Paul, other concerts have come close, but never bettered it – until the other night when the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 at the Portsmouth Guildhall.

The BSO under Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits have become world class, and this performance demonstrated why. Proceedings began with that most special of ‘warm-up’ pieces – Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique. The first and second violins were outstanding, and I knew from that point that we were in for a memorable night. This was followed by Akimenko’s Cello Concerto; a world premiere due to have been performed in Kharkiv, Ukraine but sadly now not possible due to world events. Instead it was brought to the more peaceful environs of Portsmouth Guildhall.

Karabits discovered this piece whilst searching through manuscripts in a Paris library, deposited there because it was it was close to where Akimenko – who was also Stravinksy’s teacher – died without an heir. This piece goes extremely well with Mahler’s 5th; it is colourful and full of melodic lyricism, but at the same time it is deep and ‘edgy’. The piece incorporates a complete range of emotions. Cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière gave a wonderfully authentic and virtuosic performance. He rightly earned an ovation for his sublime effort.

The opening of the 5th was slow, even by original conductor Klemperer’s standards, and yet Karabits found so, so much within this tempo, that it seemed totally consistent. The coda was totally absorbing. It may seem clichéd, but I did see some on the edges of their seats, and rightly so, for this was as near to perfection for me as was possible.

Even in the Adagietto, made famous by Visconti’s film Death in Venice (1971), Karabits proceeds at a slower pace which then picks up at times, particularly in crescendos. What what a revelation this was – it gave a much more passionate effect, right at the edge, without in any way straying into the sentimental. In my notes I wrote it was like ‘controlled screaming’, with which some might agree. I do believe that Karabits has an academic approach to music, and it works extremely well. I also noted that during this, the slowest movement, he actually danced, which is something I have never seen him do before, and I thought, ‘anything to get an extra percentage from the orchestra – brilliant’. The Adagietto moved from passionate highs and slowed to a resting heartbeat. Superb.

The last movement started with a kind of Beethovenesque musical joke (appeasing the Viennese audiences no doubt) and moved into a flurry of positivity in contradistinction to the first movement. This gave the symphony a wholesome structure. Karabits moved on effortlessly to the splendid finale which for me captured Mahler’s feeling of newfound love for Alma Werfel, whom he later married.

I’m not normally into special mentions, but an accolade must go to principal trumpet whose leitmotif fanfare was exceptional. A brilliant performance and hopefully a precursor to a complete cycle? I do hope so.

And should anyone reading this never attended a BSO performance, I would definitely urge you to attend their Guildhall concerts; you may hear equal, but you won’t hear better.

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