Ivan KARABITS (1945-2002)

Concerto for Orchestra No.1 Musikalnoe prinosheniye Kievu (Musical Gift to Kiev) (1980-81)* [12:36]
Concerto for Orchestra No.2 (1986)*[17:05]
Concerto for Orchestra No.3 Holosinnya (Lamentations) (1989)* [16:19]
Valentin SILVESTROV (b.1937)
Elegie (2002) [6:20]
Abschiedsserenade (2003) [7:06]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 14-15 June 2010.
*World Première Recordings
NAXOS 8.572633 [59:26]

This CD is something of a double whammy for me since I’d never heard of Ivan Karabits before - though I knew of his son Kirill, who is the conductor here - and all three of his compositions here are world première recordings. What I heard really impressed me and has sparked a burning desire to explore his musical world further.
When I was a child I remember telling my mother that I wasn’t sure I liked chamber music very much. She replied that it was an acquired taste that she was confident I would one day acquire. She was right - aren’t all mothers. Later I went through a period of enjoying chamber music to such an extent that I began to find orchestral music over-fussy. I likened it to having a four course meal all on the same plate and not being able to sort the hors d’oeuvres and dessert from the main course. If I still felt that way I would certainly make an exception for Kirill Karabits’ music. After all, it appeals to my interest in being open to try different things, whether food-related - I’d never refuse a sheep’s eyeball if I hadn’t tried it first - or music-related.
Karabits, born in Yalta, Ukraine in 1945 studied first with Boris Lyatoshynsky then Myroslav Skoryk before becoming Professor of Composition at the Kiev Tchaikovsky Music Academy. He founded the Kiev Music Fest, Ukraine’s leading contemporary music festival and was regarded as Ukraine’s leading composer. This was particularly following the country’s independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reason I’d have made an exception for Karabits’ music during my “anti-orchestral music phase”, if I’d have come across it, is because it is so interesting, rich with invention. While it has its serious moments it is also often funny and full of quirky elements. Drawing inspiration from his friend and mentor the composer Rodion Shchedrin who penned five concertos for orchestra Karabits’ concertos exemplify his obvious flair for this style of composition.
His Concerto for Orchestra No.2 is a perfect case in point with big, bold statements throughout. There’s no sense of the music getting lost or not knowing where it’s headed. The overriding reason this doesn’t happen with Karabits is his fantastic sense of colouration. His music is a large canvas that is full of continual action and interest. The concerto begins with a bold and serious statement from the entire orchestra before it subsides to allow the string section to continue with a somewhat fractured interlude. Eventually this gives way to a more restful pastoral section. Another burst of orchestral declaration is followed by a more restrained end to the movement. The concerto is cast in three almost seamless movements. The second opens with a tolling bell accompanied by a drum roll and cymbals. This leads to what the booklet notes accurately describe as “a bleak, still landscape with an eerie piccolo solo” and solemn contributions from a solo cello and harp. Karabits obviously enjoyed including instruments otherwise rarely employed, in this case harpsichord and celesta, which are accompanied by clarinet. The movement ends on a restatement of the work’s opening but now much more threatening in character. The final movement marked moderato may be ‘moderate’ in the accepted sense but it includes some amazing interjections from the percussion section, xylophone and celesta. There’s even clapping from those members of the orchestra free to do so. Things close with a fascinatingly energetic, exciting and improvisatory outburst from bongos and a final orchestral flourish.
The next concerto on the disc is Karabits’ two movement Third Concerto which is subtitled Lamentations. This includes some gloriously romantic and highly evocative music with an extremely serious back-story. The concerto was commissioned by Ukrainian-American composer, conductor and pianist Virko Baley. It takes as its inspiration two tragedies that befell the Ukraine in the twentieth century: the famine of 1932-33 that ensued following the Stalinist policy of forced collectivisation of agriculture and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Collectivisation affected Ukraine, the principal wheat-growing area of the country especially severely. It resulted in over 7 million deaths from starvation while the repercussions from Chernobyl are still being felt.
The gentle sound of triangles opens the concerto. A solitary horn enters playing a Ukrainian folk tune. A thin violin sound with harp and then cello accompaniment later emerges. This is together with a special instrument developed by the composer and his then thirteen-year-old son Kirill, the conductor on this disc. This is made from the weaving of tiny bells into tresses of hair giving the most incredible and unusual sound. It just has to be heard. The bells represent ‘the voices that we hear from the past’. In this way the ‘lamentations’ of the title refer not just to the two tragedies but to the ritual chanting that in the Ukraine accompanies events such as funerals, something common to many cultures. The strings then take up this solemnity leading to a solo clarinet that plays mournfully. Rising waves of orchestral sound are accompanied by a fully exploited percussion section increasing in volume until the movement concludes with the sounds of flexatones. These brilliantly evoke a ghoulish atmosphere that presumably represents the spectre of famine and death. The second movement opens with the rising sound of the orchestra packed with colour until this gives way to allow bongos to play briefly before the rising intensity of the orchestra reaches a peak that gives way to the sound of tiny bells. Karabits clearly enjoys theatrical gestures and this makes his music all the more interesting. At this point in the score he calls for the conductor to leave the podium and play a lament on piano. Then he is joined by members of the orchestra gently singing a four note scale in the manner of a lament. The flute reprises the folk tune from the opening of the concerto. The work then ends with everything falling away to leave the final notes on piano to express the most profound grief.
Karabits’ Musical Gift to Kiev was composed to mark the 1500th anniversary of the city’s founding in 482 AD. The composer described the concerto as an exuberant way of opening a concert. This it most certainly is in much the same way as is Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. There is a mixture of pealing bells and fanfares. These give way to lush orchestral sounds with the sound of woodwind spiralling upwards and the celesta and tubular bells being employed once again. The whole erupts in an explosion of sound that prefaces the second movement. Taking over in a seamless manner this movement is a vast canvas with a veritable cornucopia of orchestral colour. Included are roles for celesta, harp, flutes, woodblocks, side and snare drums, tubular bells all joining the strings in a Hollywood-style declaration of grandeur. Another fanfare follows before the celesta and harp gently conclude the concerto. This leaves us with a sense of the timeless nature of this grand and enduring city.
There would be an argument for programming all three of Karabits’ concertos for orchestra in a single concert. Each is relatively short and instruments rarely employed are used in all three so can be financially easily justified. Add to this that these are really exciting and barnstorming works that would thrill any but the most jaded of audiences.
Though I knew Valentin Silvestrov’s name I had not heard these two works before and once again I was mightily impressed. Silvestrov and Karabits were friends and Elegie is a work Silvestrov fashioned from Karabits’ pencil sketches for a projected work based on the writings of the Ukrainian philosopher Grigory Skovorda (1722-94). It was written as a memorial to his friend who was working on the score in the hospital where he met his untimely death. It is like a dialogue between the two composers and the score gives ‘Karabits/Silvestrov’ as the authors. It is dedicated to Karabits’ widow Marianna Kopystia. Elegie was given its first performance in the September of the year he died by his son Kirill and the Kiev Camerata. Abschiedsserenade is dedicated to Ivan Karabits’ memory and was given its premiere in 2003. The piece bears many likenesses to Mahler with upwardly mobile strings that characterise so much of Mahler’s writing. There’s also a deeply felt elegiac nature at work here and a heart-wrenchingly plaintive atmosphere. This is particularly true of the short second movement. It is certainly a fitting tribute from one composer to a beloved colleague.
Once again Naxos has brought us works that are either world premières or are rarely heard. In this case the disc introduces the public to the work of Ivan Karabits who, on this strength should be heard on disc and in the concert hall with increasing frequency. His music is bound to delight audiences the world over. Karabits’ son Kirill directs the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra wonderfully and gets the very best from it with some fabulous orchestral colouration. This is an absolutely brilliant disc that bowled me over and I can’t wait to discover more music by these two giants of Ukrainian classical music.
Steve Arloff 

An absolutely brilliant disc that bowled me over. 

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