Vladigerov’s Piano Concerti

cover C8060

VLADIGEROV: Piano Concerti Nos. 1,1 2,2 33, 4,3 5.4 Five Silhouettes for Piano2 / 1Teodor Moussev, 2Krassimir Gatev, 3Ivan Drenikov, 4Pancho Vladigerov, pno; Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orch.; Alexander Vladigerov, cond / Capriccio C8060

Nowhere in the booklet for this release does it say that these are the world premiere recordings of Bulgarian composer Pancho Vladigerov’s piano concerti, but neither Arkivmusic nor the Naxos Music Library has any listings for recordings of any of the five. The composer himself plays the Concerto No. 5 in this collection, and his son, Alexander, conducts all of the performances given here. That fifth concerto was recorded in mono in 1964 whereas all of the other recordings here are stereo, made between 1972-78.

Vladigerov himself is almost a curio, someone known for perhaps three orchestral works based on Bulgarian themes while his many other works are never performed or recorded. As I mentioned when reviewing his Violin Sonata No. 1 in a superb performance by Irina Borissova, he was clearly influenced by Brahms and, in these particular concerti, by Rachmaninov, yet managed to maintain his own identity just as Schumann and Brahms were influenced by Beethoven but held their own. Like Rachmaninov, Vladigerov wrote flashy, virtuosic piano passages for his concerti, but his sense of classical structure was stronger and he gave us less “bullshitty tunes” than Rachmaninov did. At just before the six-minute mark in the first movement of the first concerto, for instance, he suddenly moves away from the home key of a minor and gives us Scriabin-like extended chords, temporarily throwing a monkey wrench into his glorious Romantic palette. As someone who leans much more towards contemporary music than towards Romantic knock-offs, I will not say that this is a masterpiece that needs to be heard in the concert halls today, but I will say that I’d much rather hear this than the Rachmaninov Second or either of Chopin’s piano concerti. It is much more interestingly developed and, considering the time in which it was written—1918, when the composer was only 19 years old—it’s clearly a fine youthful work. There is more harmonic strangeness around the 11-minute mark, this time from the orchestra, in the first movement as well, as if Vladigerov was suddenly channeling the Poem of Ecstasy.

The artistic leap from this first concerto to the third, written in 1937 when Vladigerov was 38, is simply astonishing. Although still tonally based, this is music that leans more heavily on Bulgarian folk music and, to some extent, its harmonies. The piano writing is still flashy but the orchestral scoring far more interesting. There was some real growth here, possibly not even known to most Western conductors at the time. The themes, sometimes connected and at other times juxtaposed, are more varied and colorful. This is music that is at least within hailing distance of George Enescu. The second movement of this concerto opens with a brief but telling cello solo, then moves over to a cappella piano before the orchestra comes in behind the soloist. My biggest complaint of this concerto is that the third movement goes on far too long and repeats material too much.

Interestingly the second concerto, written seven years earlier, starts out sounding even more modern though it soon settles into a quasi-Romantic vein, but the influence of Scriabin here is very strong. There are quite a few diminished and extended chords here in addition to unusual rising and falling chromatic passages. Again, however, Vladigerov tended to overwrite his music, and this is, as I said, his one failing as a composer. If not for that, I would proclaim him the Bulgarian counterpart to Nikolai Medtner, whose concerti are almost as long but not nearly as garrulous.

Interest picks up in the Concerto No. 4, which dates from 1953, largely due to the almost constant use of close harmonies. Otherwise, he and his piano parts are still more than a trifle bombastic. I shall draw the curtain on this concerto and move on to the next, and last one, written in 1963 when the composer was 64 years old. The meaningless fills haven’t stopped, but by this time Vladigerov seems to have known how to manage his materials with less superfluous material.

As a filler on this set, we get his 5 Silhouettes for Piano. Being briefer pieces helps a lot; this is some of the best music on the entire album, played extremely well by Krassimir Gatev.

So there you have it. Vladigerov could have been a great composer had he learned the value of musical economy. As they stand, these concerti could make great torture instruments if the police catch a criminal who refuses to confess. Just play these five concerti in succession and he or she will sing like a bird.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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