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Pancho VLADIGEROV (1899-1978)
Impressions, op. 9 [46:01]
Suite Bulgare, op. 21 [23:36]
Prélude, op. 15/1 [5:36]
Etsuko Hirose (piano)
rec. April 2021, Église évangélique Saint-Marcel, Paris
MIRARE MIR600 [78:33]

I’m not the world’s best sleeper, and often would leave BBC Radio Three playing overnight, while I (hopefully) nodded off. One night, probably at the start of the new millennium, I was listening to a most exhilarating romantic piano concerto, and couldn’t wait to discover what it was, and who had composed it the very next morning. It turned out to be the Piano Concerto No 3 in B flat minor by Pancho Vladigerov, on the Bulgarian Gega New label, who very kindly sent me a copy, shortly afterwards. Although a true aficionado of Romantic Piano Concertos, I still found something uniquely exciting about Vladigerov’s musical style.

Pancho Vladigerov was a Bulgarian pedagogue and pianist, and arguably the country’s most influential composer of all time – one of the first successfully to combine Bulgarian folk music with classical music. He marked the beginning of a number of genres in Bulgarian music, including the violin sonata and the piano trio.

He was actually born in Zürich, Switzerland, but lived in Shumen, Bulgaria – his mother was a Russian Jew, his father a Bulgarian lawyer and politician. He played the piano and composed from an early age, and in 1910, two years after his father's early death, Vladigerov, and the rest of his family, moved to Sofia, where he started studying composition with Dobri Hristov, the most distinguished Bulgarian composer of his generation.

Vladigerov’s maternal grandfather, Leon Pasternak, who had left Odessa and settled in Zürich a few years before the composer’s birth, was a very influential figure in his musical development and later success. His grandfather used to play the violin with Pancho and his twin brother, Lyuben, and, based on a Jewish tune his grandfather had taught him, in 1951, Vladigerov composed his symphony, the ‘Jewish Poem’, which earned him a number of impressive awards and accolades, as well as the admiration of his fellow musicians: ‘A work like this is written only once in a hundred years’, Dmitri Shostakovich exclaimed.

Vladigerov continued his studies in Berlin, before becoming musical director at the Deutsches Theater. But, after much indecision, he decided to return to Sofia in 1932, where he was appointed professor of Piano, Chamber Music and Composition at the State Academy of Music – and which bears his name. He remained in the capital city until his death in 1978.

Thinking back to when I heard his music for the first time, I now feel better-able – with the benefit of hindsight – to try to explain just what made Vladigerov’s music, and still does, so individually attractive for me. By dint of his upbringing, places of study, and chronology, the composer will already have had rigorous musical education based on Romantic composers, like Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg and Wagner. But, and I think this might be the crucial factor, Vladigerov was also strongly influenced by the music of Debussy and
Scriabin, and Impressionism in particular, where the former composer was virtually synonymous with the style.

It would seem fair to say that the style of Impressionist music isn’t as deeply emotional and personal like the bulk of Romantic music per se. Romantic music was very focused on storytelling, with highly-emotive themes, whereas Impressionist music doesn’t get ‘personal’ in quite the same way. Simply-put, it’s like the difference between a detached observer of a story in the third-person, and a first-person account. I feel that Vladigerov uses the Impressionist mannerisms and musical aphorisms of Debussy, but cast in an overall more Romantic setting – Debussy on steroids, perhaps, and a unique musical amalgam witnessed twenty of so years earlier in the equally idiosyncratic style of Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), particularly his early and middle-period works.
Perhaps it was because of this seeming stylistic duality, Vladigerov eventually chose the title Impressions for his set of ten pieces, opus 9. Pianist Etsuko Hirose’s booklet notes inform us that the set – written during the summer of 1920 – actually recounts a real love story. The original title was ‘Viola’, after the name of the woman, with whom he fell madly in love, only erasing it when the short-lived romance was over. He wrote the first eight pieces in one go, between August and September, and the final two during the following months.

Impressions open with Langueur, which nods more in the direction of Scriabin, than Debussy, despite the Impressionist musical language that prevails. It’s a meandering opening, in the freer design of an improvised prologue. Étreinte (Embrace), however, looks north to Russia for its emotionally-charged lyricism. There is an almost other-worldly atmosphere at the start of Valse-Caprice, which is more reminiscent of salon music of the time. Graceful charm contrasts with moments of greater passion, in what is a quite enthralling miniature, here impeccably performed with true panache. Caresse is a particularly tender number, where the composer has somewhat managed to meld an essentially Romantic melody with the often quasi-jazz-like harmonic trappings of Impressionism’ into a serene and attractive number. Élégance starts out with a sparkling introduction, where Impressionism’s whole-tone scale and associated harmonies are the order of the day, and which then lead direct into a dazzling nineteenth-century ballroom scene, with everyone in their finery, waltzing the night away. Vladigerov’s harmony becomes more Romantic by default, before a nimble, ethereal coda rounds it off like a fluffy meringue.

Mme Hirose informs us that Aveu (Confession) is based on a series of four notes, E-A-E-B which, when naming the notes in French, yields the following utterance: ‘mi-la-mi-si’, which just happens to be a Bulgarian expression of love. Le rire (Scherzo humoristique) (Laughter), is an apt reminder that Vladigerov apparently had a great sense of humour, and felt there was nothing like a good laugh. According to renowned Bulgarian pianist Krassimir Gatev, it was extremely difficult to keep a straight face in Vladigerov’s presence for a long time which, however, at least had the positive effect of making even the most challenging task seem easier. No doubt this spirited scherzo reflects this aspect of its composer, and at times you can even laughter, albeit hinted at chromatically. The Trio is largely free from any Impressionistic attributes, before a return to whole-tone harmony leads back to a return of the opening. What a simply superb example of salon music this has been, so charmingly and faultlessly despatched by Mme Hirose’s quite superlative performance. The next piece, Passion, according to Hirose, exudes an almost ‘hollywoodian’ [sic] influence, and it is certainly noteworthy for the lushness of its harmonic palette, which at times includes elements of Gershwin’s jazz-inspired writing, in his use of parallel unresolved 9th, 11th and 13th chords. The opening of Surprise shows Debussy’s hand at work, and, as can often be the case with the French composer, there is an almost Spanish / Moorish opulence at times – and I’m sure I picked up on a little of the passionate yearning of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Vladigerov also manages to recall a musical motif from the opening piece of the set, Langueur. But sometimes prone to deep introspection, the composer brings out the best of his despair in the final piece, Résignation (Élégie). Here there is a Scriabin-like feel to the opening, with its whole-tone scales frequent use of harmonic parallelism and pedal-points, all features of Impressionism. But this is then imbued with the musical style of late-Romanticism, generating a fascinating and unique confection. While passionate at times, Impressions eventually reaches the end of the cycle, on a seemingly unearthly note, and certainly not in a blaze of glory, as it finally evaporates into a far-off dream.

It only took Vladigerov two months to compose the four movements of his Suite Bulgare, in 1926 in Berlin. Each is based on genuine motifs of Bulgarian folklore, and was so well-received at its premier that Vladigerov was immediately encouraged to produce an orchestral version. Mme Hirose fills in some of the historical and political background to the work which Vladigerov described as an important landmark in his career, and the field of Bulgarian music. The suite is dedicated ‘To my homeland’.

If, indeed, Vladigerov loved his homeland, the first movement – Quasi Marcia (Marche) – sounds like a fully-blown love-affair, such is the tremendous feeling of patriotism and pride, which its radiant key of C major seems to enhance even more. Chant was described by the composer’s son Alexander, as ‘one of the most sincere pieces among (his) father’s works’ – a song that represents the jewel of the Bulgarian musical art, full of heady Balkan and East-European fragrances that find their way straight to the soul of the listener.

Chorowodna is a folk-dance – a horo or ‘chain dance’ in 2/4, full of wild abandon, of the kind seen at any Balkan Folk Festival. The outer sections are probably more diatonic than anything else on the CD, since in aiming to conjure up an East-European ambiance, harmonic minor and modal scales are more the order of the day than whole-tone. The middle section veers towards the minor, and is essentially in 5/8, which can group as 2+3 or 3+2, thus providing the rhythmic irregularity that characterises so much music from the Balkans, and is often encountered in the works of Bartók – Bulgaria and Hungary are separated only by Serbia, or Romania, depending on your route..

Ordinarily I would move on to the final movement of Suite Bulgare, but I have to say how simply stunned I was by Etsuko Hirose’s quite phenomenal pianism, technique and virtuosity, as well as her incredible musical insightful empathy for the composer’s unique style of writing, that I should really avail myself of a fortifying glass of Bulgarian rakia, or Japanese sake. But that’s not going to happen, so on with the Motley, it is. The final movement – Ratschenitza (Danse bulgare) – refers to a ‘long scarf’ which participants hold in their hand while dancing and whirling. This Bulgarian folk-dance in 7/8 (here divided in 2+2+3) is often performed in weddings – a fairly turbulent introduction proceeds through a number of episodes, various in character, harmony and dynamics, but where the sensual spirit of East Europe is never far away, all culminating in a pianistically-demanding virtuoso dénouement.

Vladigerov was a great admirer of Rachmaninoff, and the eighteen-year-old Vladigerov was all set to meet him in St Petersburg in October 1917, but the Russian Revolution put paid to that. They did, however, meet twelve years later in Berlin, where Rachmaninoff was giving a concert. Vladigerov later composed his Prélude No 1 in F minor in 1922, a work clearly inspired by Rachmaninoff, and where the passion and lyricism of the Russian soul are all-pervading. Unsurprisingly, the spirit of Scriabin is felt, too, but while there are some whole-tone scales and associated harmonies, this is all about Rachmaninoff, from beginning to end – and what an end Vladigerov conjures up, not on for Prélude, with its majestic conclusion in the tonic major (F), but also for this spectacular new release as a whole.

At this juncture it would be so tempting to put down my reviewer’s pencil, and simply award this new CD, and its formidable pianist top marks, in my book. But I just feel the need to indulge myself as devil’s advocate for a few moments more.

Back in April 2021, a new release appeared on the Hyperion label, also featuring piano music by Pancho Vladigerov. On this occasion, the CD opens with 6 Exotic Preludes, Op 17, and then followed by the Impressions opus 9, and the pianist is Bulgarian-born Nadejda Vlaeva, who is a ‘Yamaha Artist’, and used the company’s CFX Model D for her recording. While I haven’t listened to the Hyperion disc, I did review Ms Vlaeva in a breath-taking recital of music by Sergei Bortkiewicz in June 2016, so certainly have a pretty accurate idea of her formidable technique and stylistic awareness in not dissimilar repertoire.

MWI colleague and Founding Editor Rob Barnett seemed equally positive and impressed when reviewing Ms Vlaeva’s recent Vladigerov release, so, in the final analysis you may want to audition samples of both CDs, to arrive at your final decision. Mme Hirose recorded her CD on a Bechstein Model D, and while I’m a long-time Steinway fan, the Bechstein was more than up to the task in hand, and the French Mirare label has captured its impressive sound with simply-outstanding fidelity.

I have been thrilled with Etsuko Hirose’s CD, and personally prefer her coupling. But equally if you prefer Nadejda Vlaeva’s coupling, you should surely not be disappointed with her performance of the Impressions. As I see it, it’s a win-win situation either way and, since both CDs are also available as CD-quality downloads, you have even more possibilities.

Philip R Buttall
Impressions opus 9
1. Langueur [3:35]
2. Étreinte [5:26]
3. Valse-Caprice [3:56]
4. Caresse [2:45]
5. Élégance [5:18]
6. Aveu [2:58]
7. Le rire (Scherzo humoristique) [5:29]
8. Passion [5:14]
9. Surprise [7:35]
10. Résignation (Élégie) [5:24]
Suite Bulgare opus 21
11. Quasi Marcia (Marche) [5:34]
12. Chant [6:32]
13. Chorowodna [5:22]
14. Ratschenitza (Danse bulgare) [6:48]
Prélude opus 15-1 [5:36]

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