Klassisk May 2017


Piano Concerto; Ballade Nr 2
Ivo Varbanov (klaver); Royal Scottish National Orchestra, dir. Emil Tabakov 

Hyperion CDA68205 (65 minutter)
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The life of the Bulgarian composer Dimitar Nenov (1901–53) might almost have been drawn up by a thriller-writer with an over-active imagination. Born (in Razgrad, in north-eastern Bulgaria) into a family with military links to the Imperial family in Russia, Nenov studied both piano (with the Busoni acolyte Egon Petri) and architecture, becoming a widely travelled piano virtuoso and the designer of some important public buildings in Bulgaria. He founded the classical-music service of the national radio station and established the radio orchestra, and he recorded many hours of piano music for the radio himself. His compositions include two symphonies, two oratorios and a monumental piano concerto. Any one of his four lives – as composer, pianist, architect and administrator – would be enough, you’d think, to have him hailed as a hero at home. But not in Communist Bulgaria: because he did not sing the praises of the Party from the hymn-sheet of Soviet orthodoxy, the system made life as difficult as it could for him, breaking his health and leading to his early death. His recordings were purged (only one has survived), his music went unplayed, his music tampered with – even his buildings were interfered with. His colossal Piano Concerto (1932–36) was given a studio recording in Bulgaria only a few years ago, but it has taken a London-based Bulgarian pianist and a Scottish orchestra on a British label to give it its first commercial recording. Buit the wait was worth it: it is a terrific piece. First of all, it’s conceived on a huge scale, in three connected movements that weigh in at just under 44 minutes here. It demands a phenomenal technique — Nenov obviously was a virtuoso of the first flight. It sits at the front edge of the modernism of its day: not Schoenbergian radicalism but the tonal (indeed, modal) modernism of composers like Bartók and Messiaen; in fact, there are passages that recall Messiaen directly, except that Messiaen hadn’t written those pieces yet. Bartók’s first two piano concertos were not long out of the nest when Nenov wrote his – No. 2 was finished the year before Nenov picked up his pen – and so I wonder whether it’s a question of influence or just a commonality of outlook. Perhaps the Busoni Concerto is its closest model, in terms of the sheer vastness of its conception (Nenov clearly remained an  architect even when seated at his composing desk), and Skryabin is the most obvious influence on both the orchestral writing (harmony, colour, density) and the piano part. But Nenov’s absorption of folk material gives the music a tinge of the oriental that points to Bulgaria’s position above Turkey and Greece. When you hear Nenov’s Ballade No. 2, written in 1943, you’ll think to yourself ‘Ah, Bartók Third Concerto’ – except that the Bartók was composed only in 1944, and on the other side of the war-shattered world. The Ballade, too, is an ambitious work: although based on stylised Bulgarian folkdances, it falls into three clear panels – any normal composer would have called it Concerto No. 2 and taken home the points. It’s a more accessible work than the densely argued Concerto it shares the CD with, but it’s no less fascinating in its kaleidoscopic richness.

A first recording of an important work bears a heavy responsibility: do the music a disservice and it might never be heard again. Luckily, the very opposite is true here: Ivo Varbanov has the mighty technique the piano-writing requires, in both  filigree and power, and Emil Tabakov, an important composer himself, gives the luxuriant orchestral textures shape and purpose. The recording captures the power of the orchestral writing and its  incidental colour. An outstanding, hugely important release, then, one which rewrites the history of the 20th-century piano concerto.