Graham Rickson
July 2017

That the Bulgarian composer Dimitar Nenov’s vast Piano Concerto exists at all is something of a miracle; the handwritten score and parts were transcribed for this first recording at the instigation of pianist Ivo Varbanov. Plus there's the wonder of how Nenov actually found the time and energy to compose the work in between his other activities. A genuine polymath, Nenov was a noted piano virtuoso and an influential teacher. He was also an academic who was in charge of music programming for Bulgarian national radio, having spent several years working as an architect. That Nenov is undervalued today is down to political spite and sheer bad luck: the communist regime in post-war Bulgaria viewed him as ideologically suspect, compounded by Nenov’s reluctance to compose music in support of the state. His perceived cosmopolitanism was condemned in a Soviet music journal by no less than Khachaturian. Nenov’s Bulgarian radio recordings were wiped, his personal archive 'cleansed'. Political rehabilitation came too late, and he died prematurely in 1953. Wow. But, I hear you cry, is his music any good? A good entry point is this disc’s coupling, the posthumously premiered Ballade No 2. A colourful large-scale work influenced by Bulgarian folk song, it's lavishly orchestrated and packed with killer tunes. You'd happily pay to hear it live.

Nenov’s epic, craggy Piano Concerto is an extraordinary work, containing huge swathes of music which genuinely sound like nothing you've ever heard. Take the rapturous solo string passage five minutes after the opening, or the stark trombone theme which opens the piece. Folk influences are assimilated in a very personal, modernistic way, and the piano writing shimmers and sparkles as much as it deafens; the slow movement's quiet, improvisatory beginning is marvellous. A large-scale finale really does tie up the loose ends, the clangorous ending not unlike the coda of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. And, despite the concerto’s 44-minute time-span, there's not a dud moment; it's tempting to conclude that Nenov’s architectural training left him with a shrewd understanding of musical structure. Ivo Varbanov isn't fazed by Nenov’s terrifying technical demands, and the veteran Bulgarian conductor Emil Tabokov draws incisive, muscular playing from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. And how cheering that such uncompromising repertoire is still being released by major labels: buy this and hope that Varbanov will exhume more of Nenov’s music.