Alla PAVLOVA (b.1952)
Symphony No.6 (2007) [41:39]
Thumbelina Suite (2008) [23:41]
Mikhail Shestakov (violin)
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra/Patrick Baton
rec. Studio 5 Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, 10-14 June 2008
NAXOS 8.579003 [65:20] 

Naxos have yet again proved to be staunch and loyal supporters of new repertoire and composers. Lucky the musician who can write a major forty minute symphony in November and have it recorded for international distribution the following June. Indeed all five of Alla Pavlova’s previous symphonies and her ballet Sulamith have been recorded on this label. However, this is my first encounter with her music so by definition my impressions are not born of long exposure or great experience. I had not realised that the now-named Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra was none other than the much-loved Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra of yore. Many a Melodiya recording was enhanced by their powerful and unbridled playing. Sadly, that quality is somewhat diminished here with the strings in particular starting the symphony in scrappy and untidy form. Things do get better but the characterful playing of former years is missing. Pavlova contributes the liner-note which explains that she ‘names’ each of her symphonies. This is not to mean that they are subtitled - the main work here is simply Symphony No.6 - instead she likens it to the relationship between mother and child. So for Pavlova this symphony is Vincent - after the painter Van Gogh. Apparently a copy of his Starry Night - reproduced on the CD cover - sits over the composer’s piano in her study and whilst there is no specific programme to the work she writes; “.. they share to some degree, the same view: that life, filled with endless energy and creativity, is a synthesis of joy and sorrow”. Non-programmatic it might well be but there is one mystery thrown up by the work. The CD lists the contribution of violinist Mikhail Shestakov very prominently - including a photograph and biography and his name above the conductor and orchestra n the cover. Yet nowhere in the rest of the booklet or in Pavlova’s description of either work is any mention of a solo violin part made. Before playing the disc I had no idea if Shestakov’s contribution was to the symphony or the ballet suite. Is it a case of “herein lies enshrined the soul…..” ? - I have no idea. And to be honest, having heard the symphony and the violin’s role in it I’m none the wiser; which is where the core of my concern with this work lies. On one hand, Pavlova links the music to Van Gogh with the statement above and on the other we are presented with a work whose movements are simply titled “I, II, III and IV Finale” with no other indication at all. For my taste, despite the clear compositional and orchestrational skill - although her use of percussion is about as dull as it is possible to be - of the work there is too generalised an emotional journey for it engage my heart let alone my head. Pavlova is good at creating an atmosphere but less impressive in her handling of its dramatic trajectory. Although I’m loath to use generalised labels this is very tonal post-modern music that is an easy listen albeit of a rather stern and sombre nature. I have to be honest and say I find the style of this music more cinematic than symphonic - that is not a comment on the structure of the work but the way in which the mood remains so static, as if accompanying a scene. Pavlova’s assured handling of the orchestra is very conservative and at no point during the work did I feel she produced textures or sounds that would have disturbed the sleep of a 19th Century composition teacher. Likewise the harmonic palette is very ‘safe’ with the chords that would make Rachmaninoff seem radical. She does not seek to pare the harmony away either so it is not as if she wants to tread the path of minimalism either. There is a curious paradox here that her tribute to one of the great revolutionaries in the Art World should be expressed in such conservative music. In the mixed bag of my discs for review recently I listened to the Naxos/Falletta recording of the Corigliano Red Violin Concerto. Corigliano was a name that popped into my head a couple of times listening here because of both the solo violin but also his use of a lyrical tonality as well. But the only conclusion I could come too is that his are the far finer works which achieve a fusion between lyrical writing that is complex yet accessible while finding a balance linking a musical heritage they wish to acknowledge to their place as part of contemporary culture. Both of Pavlova’s works as presented here are not of their time - which, I guess, is why they might appeal to other listeners far more than myself. I would not want to give the impression that I did not find things to enjoy here - the big climax about 3:00 into track 2 has a rather epic grandeur. Much of Pavlova’s writing is string led and it is here that the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra sound short on familiarity - the playing lacking the absolute unanimity more rehearsal time would allow. Shestakov plays his solo part perfectly well, but its more Schindler’s List than The Red Violin - I’m trying very hard to avoid cinematic allusions but its all but impossible - in technical terms, pained lyricism being the order of the day. I just wish it were more individual. Conductor Patrick Baton does a perfectly adequate job as far as one can say although Pavlova comments ominously; “…I should also say that I imagined a somewhat different Finale from this recorded version: one performed more slowly and flexibly. Performers, however, always have their own interpretation.” Not the most ringing endorsement I have recently heard - after a BBC recording session at Maida Vale once I remember the composer coming out and saying to the orchestra “Thank you for trying so hard….” - to which the inevitable reply “thank you for trying us so hard…” rang out… it was not a major work as memory serves.
The cover of the CD describes the symphony as “highly emotional” and yes it is in a generalised rather obvious way. After forty minutes of unrelenting emoting it was something of a relief to move onto the ballet suite Thumbelina which Pavlova describes as “a kind of immigrant’s story performed by animals”. I can’t think of many fairytales with diaspora as a central theme so probably best here to ignore any narrative and focus on the music. The greater narrative demands here sits more easily with Pavlova’s naturally illustrative pictorial style. Again the mood is overtly romantic and traditional. I can’t say I think that Pavlova has adapted her style to accommodate the demands of dancing as opposed to the requirements of the symphony earlier - this is music stronger on atmosphere than any explicitly dance-led intent. Track 6 Waltz Mirage is hardly original in its use of celesta but has a nostalgic charm and a light regret that is all the more welcome after the sobriety of the disc to this point. But if I’m being picky Nedbal’s Valse Triste has covered this emotional ground before and better eighty years or so earlier. The following Tango [track 7] again has a sinuous interest although here I do suspect Baton could have wrung more character from this - it seems a little literal - particularly since it is danced in the ballet by a piglet called Chris[!] Generally the work as a whole benefits from a more transparent scoring and the gentler less oppressively emotional objective. I still miss an individuality that lifts the music out of the generic - perfectly pleasant though it is.
As my introduction to the work of Alla Pavlova it is hard for me to advise readers, either admirers or the unconvinced, whether this represents a continuation of previous work or a radical change. I would assume the former and that being the case I for one will not be seeking out any other discs in the series for the simple fact that this music does not speak to me with a voice that is either original or insightful enough to merit repeated listening.
Nick Barnard

see also review by Rob Barnett

This music does not speak to me with a voice that is either original or insightful enough to merit repeated listening.