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Alla PAVLOVA (b. 1952)
Symphony No. 5 (2006) [47:23]
Elegy for piano and string orchestra (1998)* [4:41]
Mikhail Shestakov (violin); Andrei Korobelnikov (piano)*
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Ziva
rec. 18-21 June 2006, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company Kultura, Moscow
NAXOS 8.570369 [52:04]


Reviewing new music – and Alla Pavlova's Fifth Symphony, composed in the autumn and winter of 2005-2006 is as new as it gets – tends to throw up an interesting set of challenges. What are its influences and where does it fit? Does it break new ground or does it till old soil?

One might think that doing the spadework is made easier when the composer obligingly provides explanatory notes with the disc. For instance, Pavlova says the symphony 'has a spiritual programme' - tick that box, then - and is in sonata form. The first movement represents the main theme, the second the second theme, the third the development and the fourth and fifth movements are the recapitulation. Another box duly ticked.

Building on the work’s avowedly 'spiritual theme' Pavlova goes on to say the first movement – Adagio – Vivace – 'expresses [her] personal feelings about Life'. It quickly becomes clear that the music, scored mainly for strings, with limited percussion and just horns in the brass, falls into a distinct harmonic and rhythmic pattern. The high strings emerge from the orchestral mix, yearning, even vulnerable, yet always tethered to a grimmer reality by the lower strings and soft thud of the bass drum. The material is plain, the colours muted.

The second movement – also an Adagio – adds little to what has gone before but it is in the third and fourth movements (Adagio – Vivace and Largo) that the solo violin, played here by Mikhail Shestakov, picks up the yearning motif and carries it forward. Pavlova says somewhat enigmatically that the violin in these two movements is 'important' but does not elaborate. One could assume, in this context, that the instrument takes the music on to a more personal plane; this is not just about faith, it's about Pavlova’s faith and how she sustains it in an uncertain world.

As a Ukranian living in Brooklyn one may also assume that issues of faith and belonging are part of Pavlova’s creative make-up. Her Symphony No 1 (1994) is subtitled ‘Farewell to Russia’. There is something very solitary about this music, much as there is in that of another Russian émigré, Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931).

In bringing the earlier material together the concluding Vivace represents an epiphany of sorts. Pavlova insists the music reveals that 'the miracle of Life is greater than our emotions and theories' but if you are looking for transformations of another kind you may be disappointed.

So, if Pavlova's notes represent the theory of the piece what is it like in practice? One struggles to find a suitable comparison for this music. Tchaikovsky at his most lugubrious, perhaps? Anything like Gubaidulina, who shares Pavlova's interest in faith and spirituality? No, Gubaidulina’s is a strong, much more individual voice, more harmonically and structurally varied and, dare one say it, more interesting.

In his November 2003 review of Pavlova's Symphony No 1 my colleague Steve Arloff longed for the material to be more fully developed. And despite Pavlova's assertion that there are many 'important' modulations at play I am tempted to think Steve’s assessment  holds true for the Fifth as well.

In Pavlova's Fifth, the lack of modulation in the broadest, non-musical sense makes it too monochromatic for my tastes; the emotional range is just too circumscribed. Some might argue that the choice of a string-dominated orchestra limits the work's expressive possibilities but that needn't be the case. Gubaidulina's similarly searching De Profundis for solo accordion - written in 1978, at roughly the same age Pavlova is now - is rich in its invention, wholly original in its soundscape and arresting in its execution, proof that it's the material not the forces that really matters here.

The filler on the disc is the perfectly pleasant Elegy for piano and orchestra from 1998. Written for a film, The Tragic Healys, this is an attractive little piece, sympathetically played by pianist Andrei Korobelnikov. Here at least the form and content seem to be in a much better balance.

The recording is bright and forward in the usual Naxos style. The orchestral playing of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio is accomplished enough. It's good to hear that the former Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra in its new guise and worth remembering that it premiered some of the greatest music to come out of Russia in the 20th century.

Which brings me to my final point. Naxos trumpets this disc as the latest in its 21st Century Classics series. Pavlova’s Fifth is certainly a classic in the sense that it’s part of an ongoing classical tradition, but at this stage it’s much harder to assert that it’s a classic in any other sense.

Dan Morgan

see also Rob Barnett's feature on Pavlova's music



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