Tamara KONSTANTIN (b. 1961)
Tamara Konstantin (piano)
Marc Verter (piano: sonatas)
Jiaxin Lloyd Webber (cello)
Yu-Mien Sun (violin)
rec. 2017/18, Henry Wood Hall, London
NAXOS 8.579032 [76:56]
I’ve not come across this composer before, and the picture on the front cover doesn’t give much away, except it accords with the CD’s title of RÍverie. Opening the jewel case, the back of the booklet shows a village scene complete with grazing sheep, and, even if you didn’t notice the name ‘Poundbury’ at the top, it does very much have the look of rural England about it.
With my appetite duly whetted, I began reading the sleeve notes, to find out why someone with a name probably of Slavic origin should choose a picture of what is quite a controversial Dorset location, in fact. The town of Poundbury was created in the 1990s by Prince Charles, as a reaction against contemporary trends in urban planning. As Tamara Konstantin says, ‘People call it the ‘Marmite’ town’ alluding to the UK’s popular yeast-extract spread, also known as ‘Vegemite’ to the Australians, and its legendary deeply-divisive taste. ‘You either love it, or hate it’ she explains.
Let’s commence with the somewhat fairy-tale start to her composing career. An executive in an oil company, she was apparently on holiday with her husband in Canada. Listening to an organ recital in a local cathedral, they both enjoyed works by Bach and Saint-SaŽns, but Konstantin felt one short contemporary piece was so awful, that she said to her husband, ‘I could do better that that!’, to which he replied, ‘Well, go on then, do it!’ And so she did.
Her stated aims seem simple enough: ‘some modern composers’, she says, ‘are more inclined to structural complexity rather than melody, which is fine, of course, but it’s not for me. I love melody, and that’s what I have to write’.
As for the actual content of this new CD, according to their titles, some of the pieces are inspired by the Dorset countryside and coastline where she now lives, while others reflect a mood or emotion. Two are even based on existing works by Beethoven, and Bach respectively, and one piece – which, she says, comes over as infinitely more dramatic and stormy in tone – was apparently written as a tribute to the horrors her Georgian family suffered under Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union.
At this point, you may well be wondering how a business-executive might have the necessary composing skills to fill up a whole CD. When I first read this, I admit it took me back years to an old TV ad where an American business-man was apparently so impressed with a particular brand of electric shaver, that he ‘went out and bought the company’. This, of course, wasn’t the case with Konstantin, who merely signed for the Naxos label back in 2018.
The booklet describes everything thus far as a ‘media-friendly, Cinderella-like version of events’ but goes on to say that this actually does her a disservice – even if it all, no doubt, sits well with Naxos’s PR department, and the exposure and written endorsements she gets from the likes of Classic FM.
In fact, prior to discovering her skills as a composer, Konstantin studied piano at the Tbilisi Music Academy where she performed with the State Symphony Orchestra of Georgia, and gave many solo recitals. But, on graduation, she decided to try a completely different career path, and initially began working for Georgian TV as a daily programme presenter. Her next move brought her to England in 1990, where she found the job with an oil company, reinventing herself for a second time, and stayed in that industry for some twenty-three years. She still plays for her own pleasure, but it was only at that Canadian organ recital that she became thrice-reinvented, so-to-speak, returning to her first love – for music.
There are those among us who are wonderful artists and painters, but who have never received any formal training as such. Clearly as a pianist she had embraced a broad musical training, but one that would not necessarily have focussed on the art and techniques of composition. It’s an easy assumption to make that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn were all born with a pen and manuscript-paper in their hand, but they all took specific instruction at one time or another. Studying composition doesn’t necessarily make you a composer, or even a good one better, nor does it automatically predispose you to write in any specific style, perhaps that of your teacher. It does, however, provide you with some necessary technical skills to present, hone, and then, most importantly, develop your musical ideas logically, and coherently.
The CD booklet states that Konstantin – who calls herself a ‘miniaturist’ – has created a style which, because of its essential elegiac melodiousness and melancholy, which is felt peculiar to English pastoral music, she is paying homage to her love for Britain, and especially the county where she now resides, since some pieces even form part of a ‘Dorset Sketches’ collection. This may be true, and most of the great composers have often associated works with some kind of descriptive, literary, or other kind of ‘programme’. But the vital difference is that, whereas, for example, Bax’s tone poem Tintagel really can evoke the atmosphere of the North Cornish scene, Konstantin’s take on an equally-well-known location, like Dorset’s Chesil Beach, could really be set anywhere.
Poundbury is the title of the first track, written for piano trio, and says a good deal about what comes later. It begins as an attractive-enough pastiche, but soon becomes overly repetitive through its lack of real thematic development. 24 Hours, for piano solo, is harmonically and melodically somewhat more interesting, and, if nothing else, Konstantin’s explanation for the title’s origin at least makes for somewhat interesting reading.
Moonlight Rhapsody for cello and piano is based on the method which Gounod used, when superimposing a melody over Bach’s First Prelude from Book 1 of the ‘48’, to produce a setting of the Ave Maria, and which Konstantin herself does later on the CD. As far as Moonlight Rhapsody is concerned, she does an effective job, where her counter-melody complements Beethoven’s original, from his Piano Sonata Op 27 No 2, really quite impressively. Nocturne Regrets for piano solo, is more suggestive of a Chopin Waltz than a nocturne, and seemingly derives melodically and harmonically from her Georgian, or Eastern European background.
Next is a three-movement Cello Sonata, where each section is itemised, but, as with the case with the two Piano Sonatas that follow, no tempo, or other such markings are shown. The first movement opens slowly and with melancholy, with the now-familiar darkly-Slavic overtones throughout. The second movement again begins unhurriedly, and in the minor tonality once more, so denying the opportunity for any real contrast. This, and other movements, do all rather expose a lack of development, the composer relying more on adding further melodic sections than working out the existing material. Although the finale reverts to the opening key, and has a greater sense of motion, it’s still in the minor key, and really the effect is not quite that of a sonata as such, but rather three separate, untitled entities. Variety is eventually achieved by the appearance of the major key, and some more-interesting rhythmic interplay between the two instruments.
Chapelhay Steps is apparently ‘such a beautiful piece’ and Konstantin writes a little bit more about it in the notes, but frankly, given it’s yet another minor-piece outpouring, it could literally be describing anywhere from Tbilisi to Dorchester.
RÍverie is another of Konstantin’s attempts to superimpose a melody – two, in fact, as it is now scored for piano trio – this time on Bach’s Prelude No 1, mentioned above, and, as with the Beethoven example, this all works well. Of course, in both examples, it’s not really pure composition as such, but rather inventing a couple of counter-melodies to add to a ready-made, and complete entity. Abbotsbury Gardens starts like a recycled version of Poundbury. It’s in the same key, and features a descending left hand scale pattern, to which the harmony is appended above. It does change metre, from three to four beats, but essentially there isn’t that much difference. Love Ballad goes back to her roots with its minor key, and darker Slavic colours. Melodious, admittedly, but...
Greenhill adds violin and cello, and we’re back in the ‘happier’ major tonality again. As with the piece before, while it’s something you might say ‘Ah, bless!’ to, when it ends, the musical ‘scenery’ still seems just a bit too familiar by now. Recollections is back in the brooding minor key, full of nostalgic sentimentality – we’re back over in Georgia, which the title would probably suggest. With Purbeck, of course, it’s Dorset again, with another piece in the ‘Poundbury’ mould. Twilight makes use of some of the now-quite-familiar methods which Konstantin adopts in her writing yet, to be fair, the piece does manage to convey something of a crepuscular effect – once you know the title. Conversely Chesil Beach, discussed earlier, doesn’t really seem to contain any particular elements to suggest, water, pebbles, or coastline, that we see on the cover picture. There are occasional little melismatic phrases – could these perhaps be the rippling water?
The CD concludes with the two Piano Sonatas. Konstantin says that No 4, which is heard first, is lighter in mood, and more in keeping with her style of lyrical Romanticism than No 3, which is more powerful, and dedicated to the family’s suffering, mentioned earlier. No 4 reflects Konstantin’s sentimental, minor-tonality side, and opens with a relatively short and somewhat abruptly-ending movement. The second is slow, and once more in the minor key, which initially doesn’t make for much variety, although the movement thankfully does end in the major key, from where it leads into the faster-paced major-key finale, essentially a lilting one-in-a-bar Viennese-style Waltz.
The Piano Sonata No 3 is slightly longer, and has four movements, but as with No 4, there still seems little variety, or unity between them. There is now slightly more virtuosity in the piano-writing, with, for example, a greater use of octaves, but again there’s still very little sense of direction, the music tending to wallow in the melancholy of the minor key. The second movement picks up where the first left off and again relies on repetition as a substitute for development. The third movement appears content to offer still more of the same, though the finale, at least, does manage to end things on a slightly more up-beat note. It’s faster, with a slightly Schubertian triple-metre feel to it, even though it’s only after some seven minutes or so since the Sonata began, that the music eventually claws its way out of the minor. At last the composer introduces a few more interesting modulations and key juxtapositions, even if, to achieve this, she squeezes every ounce she can out of the ever-faithful Diminished Seventh – a useful chord allowing a composer or arranger a relatively easy escape-route from a harmonically-challenging situation. But, by so doing, the slight problem she has created for herself is that, while the finale goes through many more keys than the rest of the CD put together, now with a minute or so to go before the dťnouement, from the harmonic standpoint, Konstantin is still a long way from home. Perhaps feeling by now she’s probably maxed out her Diminished-Seventh ‘get-out-of-jail’ card, she cuts her losses, and ends just where she finds herself – in E flat minor, the Sonata having set off in A minor, even though key-relationships aren’t necessarily cast in stone
In concluding, the performers play their part well, and the recording is both spacious and lifelike throughout. The composer is the pianist on all tracks, except for the two Piano Sonatas that end the CD. Here she hands over the reins to Israeli-born pianist Marc Verter, even though the piano-writing doesn’t appear significantly much more technically challenging.
The recording company is a well-respected and successful international outfit, which presumably must have invested a substantial amount of money in this CD. They must see it as a viable business proposition, and indeed there will surely be many out there who take pleasure in her writing, and will buy a copy, and something with which I have absolutely no problem. Ultimately it brings us full-circle to what Tamara Konstantin was quoted as saying at the start, when describing Poundbury, or ‘Marmite’. ‘You either love it, or hate it’.
For my part, exactly the same thing could be said about her new CD, RÍverie.
Philip R Buttall
Poundbury for piano trio (2014) [3:38]
24 Hours for piano (2017) [3:20]
Moonlight Rhapsody for piano and cello (2015) [5:08]
Nocturne Regrets for piano (2015) [3:48]
Cello Sonata (2016) [9:27]
Chapelhay Steps for piano (2014) [3:54]
RÍverie for piano trio (2016) [2:28]
Abbotsbury Gardens for piano trio (2014) [3:23]
Love Ballad for piano (2016) [2:34]
Greenhill for piano trio (2014) [2:28]
Recollections for piano (2016) [3:18]
Purbeck for piano trio (2014) [4:25]
Twilight for piano (2016) [2:17]
Chesil Beach for piano trio (2014) [3:08]
Piano Sonata No 4 (2014) [6:08]
Piano Sonata No 3 (2013) [10:54]