Alla Pavlova Symphony No. 1 "Farewell Russia" / Symphony No. 3 (Russian Philharmonia Orchestra) Review

Released 2003.  

BBC Review

Two symphonies which couldn't be more different from this contemporary Russian-born...

Matthew Shorter 2003

Russian-born but working in New York, Alla Pavlova composed her Symphony no.1 in 1994 after a visit to Russia, and dedicated it to her native country as a valediction, not simply to the place she'd left behind some years before, but to an entire way of life which seemed irretrievably lost in the new post-Soviet era. The result is a haunting elegy in a single movement. Although written for only 11 instruments, its expressive scale and remarkable sense of structure more than justify the title of symphony.

From its first unsettling minutes, where piano, flutes, violins, harp and tuned percussion trill, pluck and flutter over a gently dissonant ostinato bass, the symphony unfolds an almost seamless 26-minute structure. Pavlova paints delicately with the unconventional ensemble, creating a sound-world simultaneously precise but also somehow suspended in dream. Rarely louder than mezzo-piano throughout, the tentative atmosphere is reinforced by the harmony, which hovers at the edges of tonality.

Themes occasionally recur in recognisable form, and the opening is recapitulated close to the end of the work, which is also punctuated by three piano solos, each ushering in a new pace and texture. But in general the structure of the piece is asserted in more subterranean ways, partly through the use of ostinati and pedals, but also through the transformation of material and subtle contrasts of texture. I found myself listening again and again to see if I could crack the mystery of the piece, always in vain but always drawn back by the lyrical beauty of its melodic and contrapuntal line.

The Symphony no.3, composed six years later, might have been by a different composer. It's written in a kind of pastiche nineteenth-century style, complete with faux-Spanish exotic syncopations, melody and harmony (falling tetrachords, augmented seconds). Some traces remain of the earlier technique - for example, both symphonies feature passacaglia, but where no.1 uses it subtly and sparingly, allowing it to hover latent in the background, no.3 does it to death.

The symphony, inspired by a monument to Joan of Arc, has to do with questions of destiny and God's will in human life - perhaps the burden of this programme overwhelmed the composer's naturally fragile muse. Although this bland stuff occupies the majority of the disc's playing time, it's still worth getting hold of for the Symphony no.1, which demonstrates beyond doubt a rare compositional talent. But turn it off after the first track.

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Sofia Gubaidulina: Seven Words (München Kammerorchester)

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