Tabakov symphonies TOCC0636

Emil Tabakov (b. 1947)
Complete Symphonies – Volume Seven
Concerto for Fifteen String Instruments (1979)
Symphony No.9 (2015) (first recording)
Sofia Soloists Chamber Ensemble (concerto)
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra (symphony)/Emil Tabakov
rec. live, 3 February, 1980, 18 March, 2018, Bulgaria Hall, Sofia, Bulgaria

With this and many other discs, Toccata show their commitment to releasing music that would perhaps otherwise struggle to get a hearing, for here is a Bulgarian conductor and composer whose name is hardly known, yet this is volume seven of his complete symphonies.  There are clearly more to come, since he has composed eleven. 

The Concerto for Fifteen String Instruments from 1979 requires several listenings to reveal its overall message, as it begins in a particularly strident fashion that appears quite grating on a first hearing and even the slow movement softens the sound only slightly.  The Presto conclusion which also includes metronome markings – as do the other two movements- knits all the elements together before the work ends without resolution.  The booklet writer, Paul Conway, has used just about every adjective to describe the music, leaving me with a limited choice with which to express my reaction, but this is a most powerful work that will reward close attention over a few hearings and indicates the composer’s distinctive voice, which he further explores in his symphonic writing.

Tabakov’s ninth symphony was written as recently as 2015, receiving its première in 2018 and is a work of over 50 minutes in length.  Unusually, it has three slow movements; the first creates a very bleak landscape that could easily be used to describe the beginning of time, with low strings dominating for a few minutes before a solo violin cuts through the gloom.  Upper woodwind make attempts to lift the mood but the overall sombre feeling returns to last until the movement ends.  The second movement is fast, in marked contrast, and bursts upon the scene with brass sounding a call for action then continuing in a dominating role, challenging any attempts by other parts of the orchestra to lighten the mood.  Finally, we hear a bell chime, quietening things down to some extent but still there is still a degree of turmoil as the movement winds down to its close, at which the bell reappears to offer a glimmer of hope.

The third movement segues straight from the bell’s disappearance and opens calmly, yet below the surface there remains a rather disturbed and disturbing atmosphere that threatens to erupt at any moment.  However, when it succeeds in doing so, as occasionally it does, the music soon returns to the slow and gentle mood which itself has rather sinister undertones.  The finale opens with an extremely expressive theme from the strings underpinned by low cellos and bases on a single note.  Other areas of the orchestra impinge to transform the calm into a more disturbed scene and though there are several attempts by the strings to return to the opening material both timpani and woodwind ensure the forward progress of the now Allegro moderato marking wins out.  Timpani and tom-toms continue to assert themselves and with forceful blows challenge any attempt to quieten the mood.  The strings make one last attempt to reassert themselves and in doing so signal a kind of desperation but are all but silenced by these battering instruments whose blows have the final word.

Once again, this music must be listened to several times and attentively if its message is to make its mark but it is a rewarding experience in which new things can be heard each time.  Emil Tabakov is a force to be reckoned with and I shall certainly be seeking out his other symphonies.  It is his music and so the recording in which he is conductor must surely be considered definitive and the two groups of musicians involved could hardly be bettered.  The sound is clear and precise even in the recording of the Concerto for Fifteen String Instruments from 1980. This is altogether a disc of music that all lovers of contemporary music will find fascinating and hugely rewarding.  Paul Conway’s notes are not only informative but are a true aid to understanding and enjoying it.

Steve Arloff

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