Alemdar Karamanov is a 61-year-old Russian composer and ripe for the Gorecki treatment. He's written 24 symphonies and in the 1960s embarked on a series of works on Christian themes, which ensured they were not performed under the Soviet regime. Shostakovich called him one of the most original composers of our time; Alfred Schnittke has said that Karamanov's Stabat Mater has a message for all mankind.
Karamanov wrote this hour-long choral-orchestral piece in 1967 and came to London for its unveiling on Tuesday by the London Choral Society and Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra under its principal conductor Emil Tabakov. Before it, the young Russian pianist Konstantin Scherbakov was the soloist in Karamanov's Third Piano Concerto, entitled Ave Maria, written about the same time. From the concerto alone it would be hard to describe Karamanov's style, because it seemed such a hotchpotch. In the first movement, despite the constant presence of a four-note motto theme, scarcely any line of thought lasted long. The solo part, which Scherbakov played from memory, tended to retire from the orchestral fray into atmospheric reverie - as if the composer wrote a bit each day, forgetting what he had written the day before.
The middle movement was like a brief, impressionistic improvisation, with the lower strings barely rising above the piano murmurings. The finale at length achieved continuity through obsessive sequential working of the motto theme, though it brought nothing very enterprising for the soloist. The effect was naive and amateurish.
With the Stabat Mater, Karamanov got into his stride, and built some stirring passages on an extended scale. There were five substantial movements and, like the Ave Maria, the whole work was almost entirely built on one simple motif, which the programme note related to the opening of the St Matthew Passion, though its dying fall in the gloomy closing moments, with a relay of wind instruments coiling downwards to growling bassoons, did nothing so much as recall the start of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique.
The chorus was tried, and found wanting. The wordless Prelude sounded fine, but the unaccompanied fugal section that followed drifted disturbingly in pitch, and in two of the later movements, the sopranos completely failed to match up with the orchestra and sang extended sections a good quarter- tone flat. Not that the wind and brass were as steady as they should have been, while Tabakov made a limp impression. Thank God for two strong soloists (the soprano Claire Rutter and alto Susan Mackenzie-Park) and one (the tenor Vernon Kirk) who was at least professional-sounding.
A message for mankind? The words provided that. As for originality - not on this showing. A familiar musical language was used to obvious effect. All Karamanov's Stabat Mater needs to become a hit is a bit of marketing.
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