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