Dobrinka Tabakova is a Bulgarian-born composer (b. 1980), resident in Britain. As far as I can tell, she is no relation to the composer/conductor Emil Tabakov. She was Composer-in-Residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2017, at which time her orchestral piece Timber & Steel was performed at the BBC Proms. From 202 to 2023 she became Composer-in-Residence with Manchester’s Hallé. At the same time, her fellow Bulgarian Delyana Lazarova held the position of the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor. This disc is the result of that artistic collaboration.

From the opening of the celebratory Orpheus’ Comet, you can hear that Tabakova has a mastery of orchestral forces. She knows how to blend the sections, and her writing has considerable polish. Like many of today’s composers, her harmony is tonal without adhering to a key centre. Simple major and minor chords form the basis of her music. 

She also shows a penchant for busy decorative passages (especially from the string soloists in the two concertos), which are pitted against the slow-moving progress of long-held chords underneath. If this suggests a Minimalist influence, that is absolutely right – but there is much else. Impressionism, and an interest in sheer sonority are also present. Her textural ideas tend to sit and establish themselves before moving on – a series of musical tableaux – which brings film scores to mind. I could easily imagine images attached to this music.

In the notes, the writer says: “Tabakova’s desire not to be boxed into being one thing is evident in her compositions, and this collection offers the opportunity to experience the resulting range of her work”.  That may be so, but heard back-to-back, these works cover a narrower range than is suggested. Both concertos open with the busy soloist against a placid accompaniment; the Earth Suite (of which Timber & Steel is the third movement) brings more of the same. Because there is no discernible harmonic progression, these movements can seem to drift along somewhat aimlessly.

For me, the standout moments are the Cello Concerto’s first movement (“Turbulent”), where the busy soloist is effectively overwhelmed by a growing string chorale, and the second movement (“Longing”), in which the cello plays a yearning melody over string harmonies. Those harmonies may be simple, but the melody is not.

The third movement (“Radiant”) provides little contrast, merely carrying the lushness of “Longing” up into the stratosphere and teetering on the edge of schmaltz. Orpheus’ Comet makes for a fun opening piece with plenty of energy, although without any distinctive individuality.

Performances are first rate. Tabakova is fortunate to have violist Maxim Rysanov as a friend and collaborator. The dedicatee of her concerto (and other works), he is one of the world’s great violists, with many excellent recordings to his credit. This concerto shows off his strengths: lightness of touch, easy mastery of technical challenges, and a velvet tone.

Cellist Guy Johnston is similarly impressive in the Cello Concerto, while Lazarova and the Hallé give committed and richly textured support. If contemporary music puts you off, believe me this collection will not.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Dobrinka Tabakova
Works: Orpheus Comet, Earth Suite, Cello Concerto, Viola Concerto
Performers: Maxim Rysanov va, Guy Johnston vc, Hallé Orchestra/Delyana Lazarova
Label: Hallé CDHLD7562

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