Tchaikovsky Symphony No 2; Mussorgsky Night on the Bare Mountain; Pictures at an Exhibition
Ukrainian themes are at the core of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, the Little Russian, and Karabits – himself a Ukrainian – makes the distinction in the way that he greets them. Notice how he plays up the rhetoric of the first movement, swelling with pride at each big thematic statement. If there’s a single distinguishing feature of this generously filled disc it’s Karabits’s determination to convey the grass-roots spirit of the themes which breathe life into these pieces, be it the little wedding march recalled in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky or the eminently hummable folksong, ‘The Crane’, which so readily transforms into a tub-thumping apotheosis in the finale, piccolo leading the marching band. This is Tchaikovsky’s ‘Great Gate’ to the Ukraine and the parallel is not lost on Karabits.
Characteristically, he is more mindful of the pianistic cragginess of Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition than of Ravel’s finesse. A performance like Simon Rattle’s with the Berlin Philharmonic rejoices in that finesse and piquancy but its ‘Frenchness’ has one forgetting the source material, where Karabits is big-boned and earthy, and positively encourages coarser-grained sonorities from his Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He even opts for the contentious bass drum displacements in the closing pages of the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’. Most interpreters ignore the metric ambiguity and place those two thwacks firmly on the beat – but Karabits savours the unruliness of the gesture.
There’s plenty more where that came from in Mussorgsky’s startling original version of Night on the Bare Mountain. It’s hard returning to Rimsky-Korsakov’s benign ‘re-composition’ of this piece once you’ve heard how much of its originality – texturally, structurally, harmonically – was neutered by the well-meaning but misguided Russian master. Mussorgsky’s elemental untidiness is integral to this witches’ Sabbath. Rimsky entirely missed the point. And so, resoundingly, says Karabits.