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Emil TABAKOV (b. 1947)
Complete Symphonies – Volume 3
Concert Piece for orchestra (1985) [12:29]
Symphony No. 4 (1997) [50:13]
Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Emil Tabakov
rec. 2009/2010, Bulgaria Hall and Bulgarian National Radio, Sofia

Emil Tabakov is perhaps better known outside his native Bulgaria as a conductor of enormous versatility and range, equally effective in the concert hall and opera house. A cursory glance at the catalogues reveals that among other things he has conducted complete cycles of Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies, piano concertos by Barber, Britten, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and Verdi’s Requiem, as well as works by lesser known figures from the early Classical era such as Goldberg and Graun. He has been chief conductor of orchestras in Serbia and Turkey, as well as Bulgaria, and has featured as a guest conductor of several major international orchestras. He has also composed throughout his active life – many of his works have been made available on the Bulgarian Gega label. I enjoyed a Naxos disc of a pair of his concertos released about a decade ago, but in the last couple of years Martin Anderson’s estimable Toccata Classics label has embarked on a complete Tabakov symphony cycle, of which the present issue constitutes the third volume. The first two discs were favourably received in these pages by my colleagues  Brian Wilson and Stephen Greenbank.

The new disc contains a short orchestral ‘opener’ and a substantial fifty-minute symphony.  I suppose classical ‘anoraks’ like myself have been conditioned over time to assume that orchestral pieces given generic titles like Concert Piece will prove to be pithy, anodyne, small-scale overture-type pieces designed to settle both the performers and the audience; a catchy theme, a comfortable development, a reprise, a coda. Or similar. Well that is incontrovertibly not the case here. I was completely wrong-footed by this Concert Piece. The title does actually make sense – it was written to mark Tabakov’s first season at the helm of the Sofia Philharmonic, a kind of mini ‘concerto for orchestra’, apparently designed to show off the technical abilities of his new band. In fact, I initially thought the first sounds I heard on the disc were a scratch, or distortion, or some such ‘error’. It was actually a persistent, jabbing arpeggio figure played on that staple of the traditional symphony orchestra, a synthesiser. This figure dominates the piece. By no measure could it be described as pleasant – it hectors and challenges the other players to react. The other sections take up the gauntlet, each in turn mimicking this motif in a belligerent whirlwind of astringent orchestral sound, until the protagonists sort of meet in the middle of the work, triggering an eerie, percussion-led, Nachtmusik-like section. Washes of tuned percussion seem to wake up the rest of the orchestra, and the bullying synth figure, alas, kicks in again. The climax of the piece involves the organ (Tabakov’s orchestra for this ‘Concert Piece’ is huge) being switched off, its sound gradually dissolving as the synthesiser racket distorts and dies. It would be easy (and somewhat lazy) to say that the melodic shapes and pulses upon which the orchestral sound is built evoke late Scriabin; in fact, a specific piece came to my mind, Nikolai Roslavets’ rather obscure orchestral poem In the hours of the new moon, written in 1913. (It has actually been recorded twice in the last twenty years, by Wergo and Hyperion), but whereas the earlier work has a kind of violent beauty, this Tabakov piece is both noisy and aggressive, and frankly I found it rather unpleasant. Let me make it clear - I have a huge interest in extremely challenging, dissonant, contemporary music. But the harsh sound of the synthesiser that dominates this work sounds so ‘wrong’ in this context, while the orchestral content is unremittingly confrontational. The Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra is vividly recorded, but their playing struck me as being somewhat raw. Or perhaps that was just the nature of the music.

And so to Tabakov’s Symphony No 4. At the outset of the opening Largo, a mournful, rising solo violin figure launches what evolves into a very Slavic threnody. Much of the writing here is spare and often involves monody. The only respite from the strings in the first few minutes is the presence of a repeated, muffled, four-beat tattoo in the timpani and bass-drum, later supported by pizzicato basses. The sound eventually broadens in a rather Mahlerian vein, increasing in its yearning intensity before dark, brass chords enter the fray. A tentative flute idea launches a quieter episode before strident, deliberate brass fanfares temporarily crush this peace. Lachrymose solo strings conclude a movement whose mood is unremittingly portentous and tragic.

It’s followed by an Allegro vivace which contains the only consistently fast music in the symphony. A dissonant brass fanfare presages scurrying strings and enigmatically questioning winds. There’s inevitably a flavour of Shostakovich here and while the material is convincingly ordered and spiritedly orchestrated, it’s difficult to detect a particularly individual voice.  While rhythmically the movement is unquestionably dance-like, it is almost spiteful and sardonic in temperament rather than joyful.

Paul Conway’s characteristically clear notes certainly help one to navigate the work. He mentions that he suggested to Tabakov that elements of the nocturnal third movement Largo evoke the apocalyptic man-made wasteland portrayed in the science writer Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental polemic Silent Spring, a perceptive comparison with which the composer agreed. Here the music is even more pared down than in the opening movement. Solo vibraphone, horn and woodwind lines are woven into its texture but lead to deafening silences. The four taps of the drums recur throughout. The bells that toll at its end are far from celebratory.

Rustling moto perpetuo figures in winds and strings herald the finale, marked Andante, but the pulse seems more urgent than that designation. This music is decidedly ominous and rather threatening, but neither aggressive nor bombastic. However, a cloying sense of oppression builds as the movement proceeds and intensifies. Solo strings take up the moto perpetuo figures and are placed against jagged brass-led motifs. While the music scurries and slides towards a conclusion in which the listener has long recognised that things are not going to turn out well, the pace never seems truly fast. The denouement of this Fourth Symphony is appropriately monolithic and doom-laden.

While Tabakov is unquestionably skilled in building large symphonic structures and judicious in his use of the large orchestral forces at his disposal, I couldn’t help but wonder what the ultimate purpose of this piece was. As a listener (rather than a critic) was I meant to be moved? Impressed? Entertained? Disturbed? It lasted fifty minutes but seemed much longer to me. I have noted the positive reactions of my fellow critics to the first two volumes in this series of Tabakov’s symphonies, and I respect their views sufficiently to want to follow those discs up, but the concerto disc on Naxos to which I referred earlier contained music that was so much more ‘likeable’, for want of a better word. I have absolutely no doubt regarding the sincerity of Tabakov’s vision in the two pieces on the new disc but I really found them tough to admire and even tougher to like. Maybe others will feel differently.

Perhaps the best advocacy for these two Tabakov works can be found in the immortal words of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who allegedly remarked after the premiere of his own rage-fuelled Fourth Symphony: “I’m not sure that I like it; but it’s what I meant”. Perhaps that is the way we should consider Tabakov's Fourth.

Richard Hanlon

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