Dimitar NENOV: Piano Concerto; Ballade No 2 – Ivo Varbanov (piano) / Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Emil Tabakov –  Hyperion

Dimitar NENOV: Piano Concerto; Ballade No 2 – Ivo Varbanov (piano) / Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Emil Tabakov –  Hyperion CDA68205, reviewed as hires 24-96 flac download;  TT 63:42 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:

The Bulgarian composer, Dimitar Nenov (1901-1953), wrote the substantial piano concerto included in this new Hyperion release between 1932 and 1936.  This period of political turmoil is perhaps reflected in the utterly gripping, heart-wrenching opening to the work.  It certainly grabbed my attention; it must surely have created quite an impression at its first performance in 1937, with the composer at the keyboard.

The concerto is in a single movement in three parts (rather than three discrete movements) and the first part is an energetic vivace.  Alternately outpouring with emotion and quietly thoughtful the music integrates piano with orchestra with many an original approach to scoring, timbre and architecture, some components such as the clusters still sounding avant-garde even now.

The second section follows with the briefest of lacunae, and is based on a Bulgarian folk-song about unrequited love.  Again, the construction of the piece goes in surprising directions.  The third section is quick in tempo which Martin Georgiev in his excellent essay for the accompanying booklet suggests is a scherzo-finale.  Here, material from the very start reappears transformed and after quoting from the second section, the concerto ends with a shimmering coda and rapturous conclusion.

Ballade No 2 for piano and orchestra dates from 1942 and is another substantial one-movement work.  A quiet, contemplative opening, perhaps a misty, bucolic scene, is succeeded by more energetic dance-like writing, with more obvious Bulgarian rhythms and folk-songs.  Sadly, the work was not performed during the composer’s lifetime.

Nenov’s fairly short life coincided with ghastly upheaval in Europe, Bulgaria coming under the control of Nazi Germany and then the Stalinist Soviet Union.  Before this and throughout, Nenov was celebrated as a composer and pianist, teacher, professor and competition judge, founder of Bulgaria’s national radio orchestra, qualified architect and designer of many public buildings, a man of exceptional talent and ability.  And yet, as an independent mind and never a member of the Communist Party, he was effectively wiped away to a large extent from Bulgaria’s history through the destruction of his personal archive at Bulgarian Radio.  The music has survived over the years, performances restricted largely for home consumption.

Ivo Varbanov, a Bulgarian pianist based in London, gives a quite first-class account of both works.  This release is due, I understand, to Varbanov’s project to bring Nenov’s work back to the public’s attention, and in this he is ably supported by Emil Tabakov, a conductor-composer (some of his symphonies have appeared on the Toccata label) and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra who play with quiet sensitivity and big, bold sounds where needed.  The Steinway was very well recorded as usual by Philip Hobbs and finely balanced with the orchestra.  The sound, recorded in the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow during January last year is excellent, especially as audition as high resolution 24-bit flacs.

This is an astonishingly fine release of music which will continue to enthral over and over again, each successive listening revealing more of Nenov’s genius.  This will surely be one of my recordings of the year.

—Peter Joelson.

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