“DIMITAR NENOV: Piano Music” = Theme and Variations in F-sharp Major; Fairy Tale and Dance; Miniatures; Dance; Etude No. 1; Etude No. 2; Toccata; Cinema Suite – Viktor Valkov, piano – Grand Piano GP652 [Distr. by Naxos], 67:06 ****:

To say, as the notes to this recording do, that Dimitar Nenov (1901–53) was one of the leading Bulgarian composers of the twentieth century is to say that he heads a list of artists who are probably not even household names in their own country. Bulgarian composers seem to have come late to the game of forging a nationalist musical style—and then, of course, they lacked the equivalent of a Bartók or Szymanowski to lend cachet to their efforts. Be that as it may, Dimitar Nenov has created an interesting body of piano music that deserves a hearing.

Nenov studied concurrently at the Technische Hochschule and the Dresden Conservatory, graduating from the Hochschule with a degree in architecture, a career he pursued for several years before deciding once and for all on music. He studied with Egon Petri in Poland and in 1932 received a music diploma from Bologna. A virtuoso pianist, Nenov dedicated himself to performing as well as to composing and teaching, finally as professor of piano at the State Academy of Music in Sophia.

Following the war, he apparently fell afoul of the Communist authorities in Bulgaria, who wrongly suspected him of fascist sympathies; at least that’s what I read on Wikipedia, though I haven’t seen the claim substantiated elsewhere. But we can assume that both teaching and composition were difficult pursuits in the stifling atmosphere of post-war Bulgaria, so it doesn’t surprise to discover that Nenov’s most interesting compositions predate the war.

The Theme and Variations of 1932 and Toccata of 1939 are the most substantial compositions on this program, and while they’re both highly virtuosic in nature, they’re quite different in character. The earlier piece reminds me of Dohnányi—both composers embrace an old-fashioned, rhapsodic brand of music-making rendered more up-to-date through the use of a dissonant harmonic language. The brutally insistent Toccata has little of the rhapsodic about it and sounds a lot more like Dohnányi’s avant-garde countryman Bartók. Surprisingly, Nenov began composing the work the same year he completed the Theme and Variations, though the piece must have gone its own unrelenting way as he developed it over the years. Its wild dance rhythms show that Nenov was increasingly engaged with the study and use of folk elements.

One aspect that links the Theme and Variations and the Toccata, however, is a strong structural undergirding. Pianist Viktor Valkov explains that the earlier work “is roughly divided into four extended sections, each in a different key. . . ”The harmonic progression from one section to another “is present in the theme itself, and here it becomes obvious that Nenov loosely used the harmonic structure of the opening as the governing idea of the entire composition.” Because of its relentlessness, the Toccata seems to have less formal rigor about it, but it’s actually a tightly argued sonata-form movement based on the development of two contrasting themes.

Dance, written in 1941, is even more indebted to Bulgarian folk elements both rhythmically and harmonically. It has a definitely modal feeling to it along with the thumping dance rhythms.

In the later 40s, Nenov’s style became increasingly refined—melodically and rhythmically straightforward, eschewing the earlier virtuoso bearing of his work. Whether this move was influenced by a wish to toe the party line or not, the truth of the matter is that Nenov’s final piano piece, Fairytale and Dance (1947), is negligible; and the Miniatures of 1945 just don’t hold the listener’s interest as the earlier pieces do. That includes Nenov’s very early (1924–25) Cinema Suite, which shows the composer cultivating a more international style in deference to his years of study in Dresden. As the name implies, the suite aims at an almost cinematic intensity, its language influenced by musical Expressionism.

Other listeners may have a different reaction to this music, finding more substance in the later pieces than I do. At any rate, there’s some stimulating work here by a composer that most will never have heard of. Especially in the virtuosic earlier compositions, this music cries out for a big technique as well as sensitivity to the wide palette of coloristic effects Nenov employs. It has found both in Nenov’s countryman Viktor Valkov, winner of the New Orleans International Piano Competition (2012) and student of Jerome Lowenthal, Matti Raekallio, and Jon Kimura Parker. Valkov seems to be blessed with the digital prowess of Lowenthal yet shows all the sensitivity to detail of those other pianists as well; he’s an artist worth watching, I’d think. Grand Piano provides big, front-and-center piano sound from the Duncan Recital Hall at Rice University, where Valkov is working toward a doctorate.

—Lee Passarella