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ClassicsOnline Home » KARABITS, I.: Concertos for Orchestra Nos. 1-3 / SILVESTROV, V.: Elegy / Abschiedsserenade (Bournemouth Symphony, K. Karabits)
Following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Ivan Karabits became the country’s leading musical figure. An inspirational composer, artistic director and teacher, he absorbed into his own music three particular traditions: Mahler, Shostakovich, and the folk-music of his native country. The colourful, virtuosic and at times theatrical Concertos for Orchestra reflect the influence of his friend and mentor, Rodion Shchedrin. Following Karabits’ untimely death, his compatriot Valentin Silvestrov composed two heartfelt memorials. The first of these, Elegie, makes use of Karabits’ own unfinished pencil sketches which sit side by side with Silvestrov’s own ideas as the piece progresses, almost as if it were a dialogue between the two friends about their work.
By David Nice
BBC Music Magazine
Ivan Fedorovych Karabits (1945–2002): Concertos for Orchestra Nos 1, 2 and 3
Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937): Elegie • Abschiedsserenade
Karabits: Concertos for Orchestra Nos 1, 2 and 3
Ivan Fedorovych Karabits was born in Yalta, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on 17 January 1945. He studied at the Kiev Conservatory with Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895–1963), and after his death with Myroslav Skoryk (born 1938). Following Ukraine’s independence from Russia in 1991, Karabits came into his own as the leading musical dynamo of the country. He founded Ukraine’s major contemporary music festival, the Kiev Music Fest, and was its Artistic Director until his death; as Professor of Composition at the Kiev Tchaikovsky Music Academy he inspired a new generation of Ukrainian composers; he was the Artistic Director of the Kiev Camerata and also conducted them and other orchestras in his own music; he was also one of the founders of the International Foundation in memory of Vladimir Horowitz, and head of the jury of its International Competition for Young Pianists. The award of Peoples’ Artist of the Ukraine was a fitting accolade reflecting his achievements.
Karabits’s personal voice follows in the tradition of Mahler and Shostakovich, and is also rooted in the folk-music tradition of Ukraine. His legacy includes three symphonies, three piano concertos, three concertos for orchestra, and works for string orchestra such as Vio-Serenade (2000). Among his extensive chamber music are two cello sonatas and Concertino for Nine (1983), and works for solo instruments include his 24 Preludes for piano (1976). There are also film scores (including cartoons), choral music, for instance, Garden of Heavenly Songs (1971), and an opera-oratorio, Kiev Frescoes (1983). He died in Kiev on 20 January 2002.
Karabits’s attraction to writing concertos for orchestra reflects the influence of his friend and mentor Rodion Shchedrin who has composed five in this form. The genre also suits Karabits’s superb ear for orchestral colour and instrumental timbres which he exploits with virtuosic bravura. Composed in 1986, the Concerto for Orchestra No 2 was first performed the following year by the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Igor Blazhkov. Following Shchedrin’s example, all of Karabits’s concertos for orchestra are cast in a single unbroken span, within which discreet sections are apparent; in the Second Concerto for Orchestra there are three, with the final part having a distinctly theatrical character.
The first movement opens with an arresting statement for the whole orchestra, but which soon dies away to leave the strings introducing an energetic fragmented figure, which is taken up by other instruments. A pastoral mood with the focus on the woodwind is followed by a singing paragraph for strings. With a furious burst of energy the climax of the movement is reached, before a brief return to the pastoral idyll; however, the oboe’s song is cut short, interrupted by the solemn percussive opening of the slow movement marked by a tolling bell which builds to a massive, unsettling dissonant outburst.
It fades to leave in its wake a bleak, still landscape with an eerie piccolo solo combined with mournful interjections from a solo cello both set against the harp’s rapidly repeated figuration. The new sonority of the harpsichord and celesta accompanies a dreamy clarinet solo. A melancholy unison tune emerges on the wind and harp. String, then wind trills, softly at first, but sinister in intent, lead the build-up to another huge climax, which reveals the concerto’s opening statement, now transformed to create a menacing atmosphere.
This oppressive mood is swept away as the finale is launched; it is characterised by clear textures which offset the variety of orchestral colours that speed past. Strings hearken back to the opening movement, and with the entry of jubilant horns the spirit of the dance begins to pervade the music. Over the buoyant rhythms of the harpsichord, the celesta has its moment of glory, as does the flute, whilst the strings reduce to a quartet, before the limelight falls on the woodwind then brass sections. Percussion now take centre stage with an exhilarating passage performed with such panache that some members of the orchestra start to clap; the musician playing bongos offers a wild improvisation which engenders enthusiastic applause from the whole orchestra and in so doing creates a moment of sheer theatricality. Hereafter the full orchestra drives the music’s momentum, until the briefest recollection of the very opening ends the concerto with an assertive flourish.
The Concerto for Orchestra No 3, ‘Holosinnya’ (‘Lamentations’) was commissioned by Virko Baley, the Ukrainian-American composer, conductor and pianist, who gave the première of the work with the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra on 29 October 1989. For Karabits, with few opportunities for his music to be performed in the West, a world première in the United States was a highly significant event, and he used the opportunity to make a powerful, humanitarian statement arising from two terrible twentieth-century tragedies that enveloped Ukraine, first the Holodomor (or terror famine), a man-made famine perpetuated by Stalin’s policies towards Ukraine in 1932–33 when the collectivisation of agriculture was imposed, with the result that some seven million starved to death; and secondly the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster of April 1986. The work’s title ‘Lamentations’, however, not only refers to these events but also to Ukrainian traditional ritual chanting, performed mainly by women, at significant occasions, and in particular funerals—an analogy is the keening of Irish and Scottish traditions. Karabits commented that the ‘idea of the composition derived from reflections about life, which for every nation and individual is full of trials and losses, tragedies, pains and belief. Between the past and present, between those who are alive and those who passed to the eternity there is our memory. Eternal memory…Without it there is no future, no continuation…’.
In two linked movements, the concerto’s opening pages are marvellously evocative: they feature a special percussion instrument that Karabits (with help from his then thirteen-year-old son Kirill) made with little bells woven into tresses of hair, ‘whose delicate chimes’, wrote Karabits, ‘symbolise the voices that we hear from the past…’. These delicate chimes accompany a solo horn playing a sorrowful Ukrainian folk-melody, before brass blow into their instruments without any pitch, conjuring a sensation of rustling and whispering, and continuously repeated woodwind figuration evoke a mood of anguish, against which passionate, keening lyrical lines are heard on violins and cellos, leading finally to a mournful clarinet solo. During this Largo three climaxes, exploiting the battery of percussion, occur, each one rising in intensity, concluding with the appearance of spine-chilling flexatones (an image here of evil authoritarianism if there ever was one.)
The second movement is one extended accelerando, beginning with an emphasis on string colour and a chromatic melody, tortured and gnarled in mood, which leads to an emphatic, sinister four-note motif. Cellos take up the anguished theme, the tuba has a lugubrious solo against chattering wind, and there is a percussion break with bongos prominent. The four-note motif gradually dominates the music until a declamatory statement on the strings is like the shaking of a fist followed by more lamentations, as the music slows down to simply the sounds of the tiny bells. Finally Karabits springs a surprise, and as with the Second Concerto, a theatrical gesture, since he instructs the conductor to leave the podium and play the piano in the final haunting requiem-like coda. Here, the piano plays elegiac fragments, the tubular bell intones the four-note motif, the string players gently sing a four-note descending scale, against which the flute plays the folk-song heard initially on horn. High harmonics, like the wind of the steppes—or the ghostly moans of the dead—fade into silence, leaving the piano to its solitary laments in a mood of almost unbearable grief.
The Concerto for Orchestra No 1, ‘Musikalnoe prinosheniye Kievu’ (‘Musical Gift to Kiev’) was composed in 1980–81 to mark the 1500th anniversary of the founding of Kiev. Its title is difficult to translate into English, but in essence means an artist’s musical gift to the city’s inhabitants on this special occasion, in which Karabits sought to capture the spirit of Kiev, the capital of old Russia, and its people, over the centuries. The work received its première in 1981 with the National Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Fedor Gluschenko.
Kirill Karabits likens the work to an ebullient virtuoso ‘curtain raiser’ for a concert programme. It comprises two movements; the first, in which the musical ideas from which the concerto is built are set out, has the character of an extended ‘up-beat’ to the second. It opens in majestic, celebratory mood with brass fanfares and pealing bells, before the music softens as woodwind arabesques fill the air and the front desks of the first and second violins together with harp evoke the sound of the gusli, the ancient multi-string plucked folk-instrument of the Slav countries. A sonorous climax heralds a chorale-like melody on flutes and trumpets, leading, without any break, to an explosion of energy that initiates the second movement.
Here Karabits creates a vivid kaleidoscope of orchestral colour by abandoning strict tempo and instead dividing the bars into periods of time—for example fifteen seconds of swirling strings in which layers are added at the conductor’s direction. From now on solo instruments and orchestral sections fade in and out of focus in an almost cinematic manner; episodes come and go too, as if the composer is presenting a series of snapshots of the city, for instance, a slower pastoral-like section with solo flute to the fore. The chorale is heard again as the music drives from climax to climax, at one point suggesting church bells all pealing together across the city. A barn-storming quick-march erupts, until the fanfares and bells of the very opening return. Despite this, the concerto ends softly with vestiges of the bell peals on celeste and harp, an image perhaps that these sounds of the city will endure long into the unknown future.
Silvestrov: Elegie • Abschiedsserenade
Valentin Silvestrov is recognised internationally as one of the outstanding Eastern European composers of his generation. Initially self-taught, he studied at the Kiev Conservatory from 1958 to 1964 with Lyatoshynsky. As a leading figure in progressive music circles in Kiev during the 1960s he frequently fell foul of the authorities, and, having been excluded from the Soviet Composers’ Union, often found it difficult to get his music performed. His reputation was established abroad in the United States when his Third Symphony (1966) was awarded the Koussevitzky Prize in 1967. Notable works include the Fifth Symphony (1980–82) which has been hailed as among the most important works of the late twentieth century, Exegi monumentum (1985–87), a symphony for baritone and orchestra after Pushkin, Silent Songs (1974–77), a vocal cycle for soprano/baritone and piano, and three further symphonies (1994–95, 2003, 2007). In the early 1980s Silvestrov’s musical language changed radically as he abandoned his avant-garde idiom and began to engage with the vestiges of late-Romanticism to create a distinctive post-modernist voice. His music is about memory and lingering recollections of the past, at times, elusive and intangible, for which Silvestrov has coined the description ‘metamusic’, a derivation of ‘metaphorical music’.
The two works for strings concluding this recording arose from Silvestrov’s friendship with Ivan Karabits, heartfelt memorials following the latter’s untimely death. In the last year of his life Karabits was planning a composition setting texts of the eighteenth-century philosopher Grigory Skovorda (1722–94) and was working on them while in hospital. After he died, Silvestrov borrowed the pencil sketches for about a week, and fashioned Elegie using his own and Karabits’s musical ideas which sit side by side as the work progresses, as if it might be a dialogue the two friends were having about their work. Hence the authors are named as Karabits…Silvestrov on the score. It is dedicated to Karabits’s widow, the distinguished musicologist Marianna Kopystia, and received its first performance on 15 September 2002 by the Kiev Camerata conducted by Kirill Karabits.
Abschiedsserenade is dedicated to Karabits’s memory, and was first performed on 3 October 2003 by Kiev Camerata, conducted by Valeri Matjuchin. Its two movements reflect Silvestrov’s comments that his later music is ‘a response to and an echo of what already exists’, apparent in the shadows of Mahler that pervade this touching, personal, requiem in miniature.
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