‘String Paths,’ Dobrinka Tabakova’s stunning recording debut

A review of a young composer’s first ECM Recording. Photo: Sussie Ahlburg/ECM Records

COLLEGE PARK, Md., October 19, 2013 – As young composers continue to migrate en masse from the strictures of academic modernism, Dobrinka Tabakova is the latest breath of fresh air in this ongoing aesthetic revolution. While her music has been a regular staple in concert halls across Europe over the past several years, “String Paths” represents her first major commercial release. As is often his way, Manfred Eicher of ECM Records has gifted us a memorable palette of the composer’s sensual sound, resulting in yet another ECM New Series recording to which listeners will return again and again.

Born in Bulgaria in 1980, Tabakova immigrated to Great Britain with her family as a young girl. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there is a certain migrant quality, aesthetically and culturally, in all of the pieces on “String Paths.” Shades of Gorecki and Sofia Gubaidalina mix as effortlessly as the English classicism and Bulgarian folk melodicism in her works, and the results are both novel and satisfying.

Composer Dobrinka Tatakova. (Sussie Ahlburg, courtesy ECM Records)

The album opens with “Insight,” a panoply of colors and styles packed into a shorter String Trio. Composed especially for this recording, “Insight” begins with luminous, shimmering textures slithering around resonant open strings, moving through a wildly contrasting middle section of almost naively buoyant melodies followed by a return to a variation on the opening material.

“Insight” is followed by “Concerto for Cello and Strings,” an emotional powerhouse of a work which is certainly the highlight of this album. Written for Kristina Blaumane – principal cellist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – the first of the work’s three movements begins with an exciting sawing theme in the low strings, which is layered and cycled into an intense moto-perpetuo throughout the ensemble, like a distant and furious baroque echo.

This element is contrasted by a lovely eight note melodic theme, which is similarly layered and distributed, pairing the vicious with the sweetly sensual. The conflict engendered by these two themes is eventually subsumed by an almost cinematic chorale, which concludes with a brilliant major chord, as if a shining light has finally overcome the darkness of discord.

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The second movement begins with a stunning texture of sound from which a human vocalization emerges, creating the impression that the string players are humming beneath the notes produced by their instruments.

This soothing yet emotionally charged texture begins to evolve rhythmically, as the lyrical cello solo roams more freely than in the initial movement. The lovely theme spins and cascades, gradually winding the accompanying strings into a beautiful panoply of sound, at which point the ensemble falls away suddenly to reveal the cello soloist. A variation on the haunting opening motif gradually returns, ending on a gentle but understated note.

Cover, “String Paths” by Dobrinka Tabakova. Courtesy ECM.

The final movement begins with shimmering soft colors in the upper strings, emerging in the exact opposite fashion of the opening of the first movements before settling into another exquisite, chorale-like theme. The cello solo enters rather quickly, engaging in the fast-bowed style of the first movement while taking the idea in a considerably more upbeat direction. The accompaniment seems to trail in eager anticipation, and the music eventually winds itself up again as it moves toward a truly infectious and joyful conclusion.

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If there is one flaw with this concerto, however, it is this last movement. It seems entirely too short, ending abruptly at a point where it is just beginning to explore the full consequences of Tabakova’s rich materials. Yet despite this singular flaw, the “Concerto for Cello and Strings” is a work that deserves repeated hearings.

“Frozen River Flows” for violin, double bass and accordion seems almost a reminiscent of another ECM favorite, Eleni Karaindrou. This aptly named “meditation” is perhaps the most ethnically inspired of the works on this album, calmly deploying a minimum of materials to paint a melancholy landscape.

The “Suite in Old Style,” scored for solo viola, harpsichord and strings, seems a nod to Henryk Gorecki’s composition of the same name, though Tabakova clearly has her own message to send. Her work begins with a quasi-medieval theme that seems almost contrived, perhaps even jarring the listener enough to question the composer’s intent. But it is precisely at this point that Tabakova’s considerable compositional acumen kicks in, taking us in entirely unexpected directions.

Maxim Rysanov plays a confident viola in this recording, his muscular solos alternating with ancient ensemble refrains. But it is at this point that Tabakova surprises us again, moving into a clearly jazz-inspired interlude for viola and harpsichord.

Tabakova continues her stylistic games throughout the three movements of this work, and her use of wildly contrasting styles somehow sticks together admirably. The second movement of the Suite - “The rose garden by moonlight” - is a breathtaking slow movement by any standards, beginning with a sonorous string chorale worthy of any great British composer, transitioning into a moody Baroque chamber setting. Even here, the contrasting stylistic medleys are remarkably successful and satisfying.

The CD concludes with the aptly named “Such different paths,” for a string septet, helmed here by the always-wonderful Janine Jenson. A substantial work of almost seventeen minutes, it expands on the tonal palette presented by Tabakova in the preceding works while displaying a different and perhaps more aesthetically ambitious side of this composer.

Towards the beginning of the work, the composer layers on a percussive, thick-textures, almost atonal cascade, which, in a single breath, melts into a beautiful and sonorous new melodically driven theme. Tabakova allows the solo nature of the first violin part to emerge gradually, and Jensen predictably rises to the occasion.

Not wasting any time, Tabakova begins to steer this music into a theme whose possible intent is a distant echo of American bluegrass, channeling all of the verve and spontaneity of that genre into her own unique tonal palette. Towards the end of the septet, as all seems set to fade into uncertainty, a deft twist opens the sonic palette for the solo violin, which rises and shimmers in a Vaughansian gesture that Jensen clearly carries off with relish. Tabakova’s young but formidable craft is on full display here, as this is easily the most patient and carefully thought-out work on this fine album.

In the final analysis, Dobrinka Tabakova’s “String Paths” is an original and exciting, deeply moving, and triumphant commercial recording debut. What’s more, there is something immediate and personal about her music that will prove the envy of many of her peers. Tabakova may be using the musical materials of tradition, but through them she has broken new paths, while young composers are sure to take notice and be inspired.

Rating: 3.9 out of 4 stars.


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Mark Nowakowski


Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations, while currently
also serving as the Music Curator and Interim Director for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.

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