Bournemouth SO, Karabits, Ehnes, Colston Hall, Bristol


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The Independent Culture

Devoting a series of concerts to the works of that celebrated mutual-admiration society Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, conductor Kiril Karabits, violinist James Ehnes, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are onto a good thing.

‘What attracts me to Britten?’ the Russian once asked rhetorically, before answering his own question: ‘The strength and sincerity of his talent, its surface simplicity, and the intensity of the music’s emotional effect.’

That judgment perfectly fits Britten’s Violin Concerto. Begun during the Spanish Civil War and finished in the first weeks of the Second World War, this darkly beautiful work – ‘rather serious, I’m afraid’ was Britten’s wry comment - opens with a Beethovenian gesture on timpani after which the soloist asserts his dominance by turning gentle somersaults high above the orchestra.

Ehnes’s sound had the beauty of burnished steel as he roamed the stratosphere, the poise of his playing complementing the poise of this music which might have been written to show off his talents, for his sound is absolutely Protean.

Required in the Scherzo to swoop and slide like a Transylvanian village fiddler, he went on to deliver a brilliant cadenza, musingly at first and then catching fire, before ushering in the majestically sweeping threnody of the Passacaglia. Here he dazzled, going through a series of duets with different instruments using a different timbre each time, making quick-fire contrasts between legato and pizzicato, at one point effortlessly bowing a leaping melody on one string while plucking another, and finally making his instrument speak with two voices, one low and richly sonorous and the other high and pure, and in the latter mode drifting off into space.

This reflected a rare rapport between conductor and soloist, but the other works in the programme revealed an orchestra in top form with Karabits gaily revisiting his Soviet origins via Shostakovich’s ‘Gadfly’ suite and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony.

Given that Welsh National Opera were opening their ‘Boheme’ just round the corner, this concert was impressively well-attended, but testing times lie ahead for the residents of Colston Hall. After sixty years’ wear and tear it needs to refurbish, which will mean eighteen months of improvised pop-up auditoria: the Bristol Music Trust plans to turn this challenge to good account, by taking music to those parts of the Bristol area where live orchestral music doesn’t normally reach.