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Four major orchestral works from one of the most distinctive of contemporary British compositional voices.
In my research for Orpheus’ Comet, I came across one of the earliest mentions of the Orpheus legend, which is found in Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics. Essentially these are books about agriculture but, the fourth book begins with a detailed study on the life of bees. The final chapter then turns to the legend of Orpheus and tells of Aristaeus (a shepherd and bee-keeper) who chased Euridice, causing her to trip, be bitten by a serpent and ultimately die. As the piece began to take shape, it was the buzzing bees that left a strong impression on me and transformed into musical material.
At the very opening of the piece, the buzzing begins in the horns, gradually evolving into nebulous chord clusters and accent sparks that pass around the rest of the orchestra. This dialogue continues until a solemn chorale appears out of the busy texture. The chorale is taken up by the strings and grows to include the buzzing ideas, which are transformed to almost hypnotic rhythmic loops. A soaring melody in the flute and clarinet hovers above as momentum starts to build. Trombones underpin this build-up and prepare for the finale, and the arrival of Monteverdi’s theme, with a modern twist.
The work was first performed on 27 November 2017 at LSO St Luke’s, London by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Wildner.
Concerto for viola and strings (2004)
‘The Song of the Enchanting Viola’ was the working title for this concerto, alluding to our minds’ tendency to float into another world while listening to music, and creating mental images and stories. The emotional content of the piece is quite clear and the four movements each represent a different emotion. A highly virtuosic work, it shows the full range of the viola and requires great stamina from the soloist. There is a lot of string crossing and leaps and, much like a crossword, the soloist has to find the most logical route through the work.
The opening chord is confident and striking and plunges the soloist straight into a challenging passage with the very first phrase. This is the character with which the rest of the movement continues, before reaching the demanding cadenza towards the end. In many ways this movement acts as an overture for the concerto, as many of its musical ideas are used in different contexts throughout the piece.
The second movement is nostalgic yet elevating, with a lamenting solo viola melody that leads a dialogue with an equally passionate solo violin line. Almost like a lullaby, it’s a very intimate, soulful and lyrical movement.
The third movement starts with an overtone effect, developed by Maxim Rysanov. It is a playful movement, the most animated in the concerto, characterised by pizzicato strings and a dialogue with the soloist that builds the tension for the final movement. There is no break between the third and fourth movements, and the start of the finale is marked by a change in tempo and a pentatonic chorale. This final movement, like the first, is confident and powerful, presenting material from previous movements in a different light before ending right at the top of the soloist’s fingerboard.
Maxim Rysanov and I studied together at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and he was one of the first people to commission a piece from me. I had written a number of smaller chamber pieces for him before this much larger work. He premiered the concerto on 16 February 2004 at St John’s Smith Square, London with the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London, conducted by Julian Gallant.
Earth Suite (2018-2020)
The overwhelming force of Nature is at the heart of the concept of my Earth Suite. The question of our existence as a species is becoming ever more complex, and yet the ultimate power remains with Nature. These are contemplations, which I’ve explored in a number of previous works, including in my violin concerto, The Patience of Trees, and numerous works inspired by mountains. This suite unifies some of the major pieces that I wrote as part of my association with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The collection of works can be performed together, in any combination, all bound by the great natural forces that surround us and that we are part of ourselves. Alternatively they can be performed as individual, shorter works and I plan to add more movements to this suite in the coming years.
Tectonic: The dramatic consequences of the shift in the tectonic plates which form the Earth’s crust have shaped our landscape—the formation of mountains, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes—and this powerful force became my inspiration. This was one of the first larger pieces I had written for orchestra and it is almost vertical in its concept—characterised by blocks and leaps in the music.
The opening, almost Morse code theme in the basses and lower brass, sets up a suspenseful expectation, which slowly grows as different orchestral sections join, before an orchestral tutti bursts through. The music then returns to the ominous state before yet another orchestral burst ruptures the calm—a clear reference to seismology and the tectonic plates.
Pacific: While Tectonic’s concept was mainly vertical, here the calm surface of the Earth’s largest ocean, stretching to an infinite horizon, inspired Pacific, the slow movement of the suite. The work was conceived as an almost endless stream of interlocking woodwind solos, which contract to a very minimal orchestration with pulsating piano accompaniment, before slowly building to an enveloping climax and then evaporating into string harmonics.
Written just as the Covid-19 pandemic was about to take hold, I feel that some of the anxiety and uncertainty of that time has permeated this music, almost a kind of premonition of the stillness that the world experienced, and that I feel still resonates today.
Timber & Steel: Celebrating 150 years since Proms founder Henry Wood’s birth, the title of the piece includes the nickname by which the beloved figure was known among Proms goers and musicians—‘Timber’. As I was contemplating what Henry Wood would have made of the world today, it also made me think of the world that he would have found himself in on his arrival in 1869. I kept coming back to the great industrialisation over the century that preceded Wood’s birth. Machines freed up time, allowing people to invest in learning about the world, educating themselves, enjoying cultural activities—an opportunity that, ultimately, inspired the concept of the Proms concerts.
Throughout the piece I wished to create a sense of drive, movement, progress. After all, we’ve seen the most astonishing advancement in technology in the last century, and this relentless energy is what motivated my new work. The title also alludes to the founding elements of industrialisation and, helpfully, has a connection to the materials found most broadly among orchestral instruments themselves—woods and metals. These two sound-worlds are constantly being pitted against each other, beginning with the woody marimbas which lay the foundations for brass sparks. A series of musical ‘cells’ slot together throughout the piece: many of these cells carry material made up of the musical equivalent of Henry Wood’s name and the title of the work; some examples are the opening figure in the marimbas or the jagged first full orchestra outburst.
As well as being an accomplished painter, carpentry was among Henry Wood’s various hobbies and I would hope that he would have enjoyed the jigsaw of ideas that form the spine of my humble homage to a great figure in British musical life.
Concerto for cello and strings (2008)
This work was written four years after the Concerto for viola and strings and I see it as a journey from one to the other. Both works have a broadly similar, classic fast-slow-fast structure but in this concerto I had a very specific idea that I wanted to get across: a vision of ascent through the three movements. Although there are three movements, I actually prefer to think of it as one seamless form.
Continuing a personal exploration of block structures, the first movement presents an almost constant dialogue between soloist and orchestra, alternating very turbulent and angular material on the one hand and a stiller, folk-reminiscent theme decorated with expressive grace notes on the other. This extremely virtuosic movement, with highly acrobatic writing for the soloist, eventually reaches a conclusion with a chorale-like idea, rooted in the slower theme of the opening.
The second movement is more introverted and soulful, beginning with a theme based on a pentatonic mode in the solo cello, which slowly becomes more embellished and is transformed into a series of rich chord progressions. The initial theme remains interweaved throughout the movement, though less obviously towards the end.
The semiquaver theme of the first movement is the trigger for the main theme in the finale. This new idea takes the angular character of the opening theme and transforms it into a more joyful version, over which the solo line glides and leads towards the final resolution.
This concerto, commissioned by the Cello Biennale Amsterdam, was written for Kristina Blaumane and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, who premiered it on 20 October 2008 at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. It has featured in productions by the Sydney Dance Company and American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, as well as in the acclaimed film Adieu au langage (2014) by Jean-Luc Godard.
Dobrinka Tabakova © 2023
Tabakova believes that the musicians of the Hallé are closely connected to her musical voice and that with their warm, beautiful sound they demonstrate an understanding and care for the intricacies and dialect of her musical language. This recording also features two soloists: cellist Guy Johnston, an artist with whom Tabakova has made a recent connection; and violist Maxim Rysanov, an artist with whom she has worked for almost a quarter of a century—one of her longest artistic partnerships.
Described as a composer of ‘exciting, deeply moving’ music (Washington Times) with ‘glowing tonal harmonies and grand, sweeping gestures [which] convey a huge emotional depth’ (The Strad), Dobrinka Tabakova has been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, BBC Radio 3 and the European Broadcasting Union, amongst others. Her debut profile album String Paths (ECM Records) was praised internationally and nominated for a Grammy in 2014. She was appointed Composer-in-Residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra (BBCCO) in 2017 and her work Timber & Steel was premiered by BBCCO at the 2019 BBC Proms in a special concert celebrating Sir Henry Wood’s 150th anniversary. Her concerto for violin, strings and percussion—The Patience of Trees—was premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2021.
Dobrinka Tabakova’s fascination with science, music and the natural world stems back to her family life, growing up surrounded by physicists, doctors and economists with a strong love of music. Tabakova’s desire not to be boxed into being one thing is evident in her compositions and this collection offers the opportunity to experience the resulting range of her work.
Hallé © 2023