ECM New Series presents the first full album devoted to the music of Dobrinka Tabakova, a composer born in Bulgaria in 1980 but raised from a young age in London and educated there. In Tabakova’s music – richly melodic, texturally sensuous, often emotionally radiant – there resides the new and the familiar, or rather the familiar within the new, and vice versa; there are the spirits of East and West coursing through the pieces, usually hand in hand; and just as the composer’s technical virtuosity is apparent, she possesses a desire, and a talent, for direct communication that can be heard in virtually every measure. The recording features Tabakova’s Concerto for Cello and Strings, plus the Rameau-channelling Suite in Old Style for viola and chamber orchestra. Then there are three chamber works: the string trio Insight, the string septet Such Different Paths and a trio for violin, accordion and double-bass, Frozen River Flows. The performers include violinist Janine Jansen and several of Tabakova’s former conservatory colleagues: violinist Roman Mints, violist-conductor Maxim Rysanov and cellist Kristina Blaumane, principal with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tabakova’s music has a particularly 21st-century feel for its broad palette – its free mix of tonality and modality, of folk-music influence and the example of past masters. Her ECM debut came about after a happenstance meeting of the composer with label founder-producer Manfred Eicher at the Lockenhaus Festival in Austria, where Rysanov was performing Tabakova’s Suite in Old Style (part of a triptych of suites she has written for him, along with a concerto). The resulting album presents Tabakova works from 2002 through 2008.
It opens with Insight, which she wrote especially for the performers on this recording: Rysanov, Mints and Blaumane, all of whom attended London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama with the composer. Tabakova explores various techniques of string playing only to transform the trio, virtually, into a single instrument, one that breathes: an accordion, or, at some points, perhaps a brass choir.
Tabakova composed her Concerto for Cello and Strings for the Latvia-born Blaumane. The work presents challenges for the cellist with leaps across the fingerboard in its interrelated first and third movements, “Turbulent” and “Radiant.” The middle movement, “Longing,” is the pensive heart of the work, the cellist tracing and embellishing a pentatonic theme until it blooms expressively and then fades to a whisper. Tabakova says: “The cello resonates with me as a composer for many reasons – its rich sound and overtones, its extensive range, its closeness to the human voice. Kristina is inspirational in that she can go quickly from playing of great technical virtuosity to the most tender sound – both with equal musicality, maintaining a natural, almost singing, phrasing throughout.”
The composer’s inspiration for Frozen River Flows – a meditation for violin, double-bass and accordion – stemmed from the wintry image of a mountain brook flowing underneath a frozen crust. There is a melancholy to the piece that evokes Schubert’s Winterreise, an impression underscored by the vocal lyricism of the violin, the lonely tolling of the double bass, the hurdy-gurdy-like drone of the accordion. “Years ago, I heard Messiaen’s organ work La Nativité du Seigneur performed on the accordion – a magnificent achievement,” Tabakova says. “I imagine the accordion as this extremely versatile one-man orchestra, like a folk-music organ. The introduction of the sound world by the accordion reflects my initial image of the icy brook. Gradually, as the piece unfolds, the music mirrors the realization of a flowing stream underneath the ice – a beautiful natural phenomenon.”
Suite in Old Style, for viola and chamber orchestra, shares its title and impetus with works by Górecki, Schnittke and Penderecki, among others finding a muse in the music of the Baroque and Classical eras. Another special inspiration for Tabakova in this regard was Respighi. “I aimed to capture some of the effortless ‘conversation’ with the past that Respighi manages so well,” she says. “With my Suite in Old Style, the conversation I wanted to have was with Rameau. His fast-paced, ‘espresso’ movements – short movements with the highest concentration of musical ideas – grabbed my imagination early on. Later, when I would study his harpsichord miniatures, I always found that same condensed, saturated musical form, bursting with colors and layers. There are no direct quotations from Rameau in my piece, but I used the letters of his name in musical notation to make the melody of the movement ‘Riddle of the Barrel-Organ Player.’ The suite draws from architecture as well as music, including the idea of clean, symmetrical structures with inner decoration, reminiscent of the Baroque.”
Tabakova composed the album’s concluding string septet, Such Different Paths, for silver-toned violinist Janine Jansen. This magical piece consists of one avenue of musical material after another: The violins enter first, next the paired violas, then the two cellos and, lastly, the double bass, with melody lines passed from one instrument to another until the ensemble blends; the solo violin eventually rises sky high, perhaps in a distant allusion to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. “When Janine approached me to write the piece,” Tabakova explains, “I discovered that chamber music is at the heart of her approach to music making. It’s something that she grew up with, an ideal that she applies to her performances whether concerto or chamber. I was inspired not only by her readiness to communicate with the other musicians, but also by her special sound. That blend of the conversations between the musicians together with the blossoming of the solo line is something I had in mind while composing. The beauty for me in any great chamber work is the discovery of the dialogue between voices: the layers and the shifts in perspective, like a camera zooming in and out of focus on the background or foreground.”