Bulgarian-born composer Dobrinka Tabakova first came to the attention of ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher through the Lockenhaus Festival, a source of inspiration for many of the ECM New Series releases involving both composers and performers. On that occasion he heard violist Maxim Rysanov as soloist in a performance of Suite in the Old Style, scored for viola, harpsichord, and strings and one of three suites Tabakova had composed for Rysanov. Born in 1980, Tabakova is very much a 21st-century composer, familiar with the broad spectrum of genres explored by composers during the twentieth century without feeling any major bond to any of them (either the genres or the composers).
It should be no surprise that this suite is, at least in part, a reflection on Alfred Schnittke. Tabakova came to know Rysanov through his performances of Schnittke’s viola concerto; and he also performed his Suite in the Old Style on viola, rather than on violin, for which it was scored. However, while Schnittke’s view of the past tended to be jaundiced (when not outright cynical), Tabakova was also influenced by the more sensitive retrospection of Ottorino Respighi, as in his three suites of “ancient airs and dances.” She has described those suites as “conversations” with the past; and she conceived her own suite as a similar “conversation” with Jean-Philippe Rameau. Listeners familiar with Rameau’s style will now have no trouble eavesdropping on this conversation with the release (earlier this month) of String Paths, Tabakova’s debut recording for ECM New Series, in which Rysanov serves as both soloist and conductor of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra.
Rysanov also conducts that ensemble in a performance of a cello concerto, which Tabakova composed for Kristina Blaumane, Principal Cello with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Like the suite, this concerto radiates with positive energy, even to the extent that the “tempo marking” for the last of the three movements is “Radiant,” complementing the “Turbulent” opening movement and the intervening movement, marked as “Longing.” Once again the listener may well approach this as another dialog composition, although in this case the dialog is between composer and soloist.
Both Rysanov and Blaumane also perform on the opening track of the album, “Insight.” This is a single-movement string trio in which they are joined by violinist Roman Mints. All three performers, as well as Tabakova herself, first met as students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. This trio demonstrates how, like other 21st-century composers, Tabakova has embraced sonority as a fundamental component in the overall logic of composition, as significant to overall structure as the more traditional elements of melodic invention, harmonic progression, and contrapuntal voice leading. Thus, while the music was composed for strings, the key sonorities are the breathing qualities of a brass choir and the “mechanical breathing,” so to speak, of an accordion.
One might then say that the accordion moves from the virtual to the physical in “Frozen River Flows,” which is scored for a less conventional trio in which the accordion (Raimondas Sviackevičius) is joined by a violin (Mints) and a bass (Donatas Bagurskas). This single-movement composition is clearly evocative of folk styles from Tabakova’s Eastern European past. However, it also suggests memories of the organ-grinder encountered by the protagonist at the conclusion of Franz Schubert’s D. 911 song cycle Winterreise.
The album concludes with a single-movement string septet, entitled “Such Different Paths” and scored for pairs of violins (Janine Jansen and Julia-Maria Kretz), violas (Amihai Grosz and Rysanov), and cellos (Torleif Thedéen and Boris Andrianov), along with a bass (Stacey Watton). This was composed for Jansen, whose own approach to the programming of chamber music often involves that same “conversation” between past and present that has occupied Tabakova’s attention. In “Such Different Paths” the melodic material progresses from the upper register instruments to the lower strings, while the “elevation” of the first violin alludes to the rising solo passages for violin in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.”
This new release thus presents Tabakova to the community of serious listeners as a composer very much of the current century but with a clear understanding of the past and the potential influences that reside there.