About this Recording
8.223796 - KARAMANOV: Symphony No. 3 / Piano Concerto No. 3

Alemdar Karamanov (b. 1934)
Symphony No. 3 • Piano Concerto No. 3 “Ave Maria”


Alemdar Sabitovich Karamanov, son of a Russian mother and Turkish father, was born in Simferopol, inland Crimea, on 10th September, 1934. Surviving the German occupation from July 1942 to May 1944, he went to the Moscow Conservatory in 1953. Here, among contemporaries including Shchedrin, Denisov, Volkonsky, Gubaidulina and Schnittke, he worked with Bogatïryov (1953–58), completing his studies under Kabalevsky and Khrennikov, head of the Composers’ Union. Vladimir Natanson, a disciple of Feinberg, was his piano teacher. Spurning party benefits and the Red Square Establishment, he returned home to Simferopol in the mid-1960s, a gaunt, reclusive figure, urban by night, rural by day, resigned to a struggle for existence, food-parcels, and gifts from well-wishers.

Much of Karamanov’s music, including the first ten symphonies, dates from his apprenticeship in Khruschev’s Moscow, when his reputation was as a “complicated” pantonal modernist, “with a very sharp ear” and a “bright” intellect. Negative circumstances allied to a pathological reluctance to “write anything down” explain in part why virtually nothing has appeared since the mid-1980s, barring revisions, a couple of film-scores, and the Crimean National Anthem of February 1992. Long forced to imagine his ideas solely in the concert rooms of his mind, Karamanov’s recent claim to be only now conceiving some of his greatest work suggests, however, no lessening of the creative urge. 24 symphonies (1954–83), three ballets (1961–85), seven concertos (piano, violin, trumpet, 1958–68), three string quartets (1953–62), four piano sonatas (1954–61), sundry piano cycles (including nineteen Concert Fugues, 1964), choral settings (1954–74) and songs (to Russian, African and Latin texts, 1963–74) make up the list of his works.

It is Moscow, 7th January 1965, a winter Thursday, the Gorki Prospect, trumpets, a Christ vision: “It was as if I had returned home. From that moment, Christianity, my music and myself became one”. The Soviet bloc. 1965–66. Gomulka’s progressively Catholic Poland. Penderecki is writing his St Luke Passion, never to look back. Brezhnev’s retrogressively atheist USSR. Karamanov is putting together his four Gospel symphonies (It Happened, Nos. 11–14), never to look forward. In a society of spiritual persecution, where even possessing a Bible was a crime against the state, the overtly religious message of Karamanov’s work, underlined further by the Apocalypse Symphonies, Nos. 18–23 (Let it be, 1976–80), the Stabat Mater (1967), Requiem (1971 rev. 1991) and Mass (1972 rev. 1992), won him few friends. Nor, too, at the height of the Cold War, did his Columbus-inspired Seventeenth Symphony (America). “I don’t play depraved political games, smile at mediocrity, or touch the dirty hands of dirty musical businessmen.” He has had to pay a high price for his beliefs and morals. Tales abound of derisive artistic condemnation, accusations of treachery, physical deprivation, prevention of travel, “walls of silence”, suppressed performances, mutilated recordings, sabotaged manuscripts, confiscated “copyrights” (only five works seem ever to have been printed), compromised / enforced substitutions of title from the religious, Let it be to the political Poem of Victory. “It was”, he reflects, “a choking atmosphere with fear for one’s own life. There was no publication of my music, no interest in my creativity, it was extinguished by an ‘unknown force’… it was impossible to speak not only about the performance of this music, but even of information that [ii] existed” (BBC Russian Service interview, 5th June 1992). Just as his father had been purged by Stalin in 1937, then removed to the gulags of Central Asia as part of a post-war programme ethnically to cleanse Crimea of non-Russians, so Karamanov went through a similar process of obliteration: you will search in vain for his name in Soviet, correspondingly Western, encyclopedias. He has had his supporters: Shostakovich, Denisov, Schnittke, the last, especially, a faithful friend since student days who has described him as “not simply a talent, but a genius, creating the most wonderful compositions which affected me then [at the Conservatory] and do so now. All I know Karamanov had discovered before me” (Alexander Ivashkin’s book Alfred Schmittke [1996] passingly expands on their long relationship), but to all intents and purposes he remains a still elusive figure in limbo—“The Great Unknown”, his music an extraordinary witness to an artist’s will to survive in the face of censure.

Musically, the religiously-enlightened Karamanov, in his words “cleansed of [earlier] contemporary influences”, is a free-wheeling spirit, a theatrically percussive orchestrator, experienced in generating sonorous, large-scale “tower block” structures. Out of the possibilities of the chromatic scale, he paints massive tonal canvasses almost cinematically visual, full of jagged imagery and surrealistic dream, long crescendos and lyrical die-aways, violent climax and delirious languour. Within an eclectic technique of sound organization / montage he labels “superphonic” or “hyperphonic”, any means, any style, no matter how aesthetically unsettling, from Russian Romanticism and Scriabinesque ecstasy, through folk and nightclub, Schoenberg and Boulez, saccharine and chaos, to panoramically repetitive minimalism, is his for the using. Karamanov draws his strength from his God: “I don’t belong to any churches, but at the same time I belong to all the churches of the world.” His is “a Cosmic religion—not limited by narrow church understanding”, or by “external religious dogma.” Environmentally, though, he believes the sameness of more than three decades of Crimean life, metaphorically pouring music and “religion symphonies” down a black hole, never to be heard, has effectively suffocated him: “I’ve not been able to do anything for many years—Prague [1991; presumably, too, a visit to London in 1994] was a good influence. It reawakenend my spirit and inspired composition. I have no doubt I must change my life in order to continue to live and create”. He sees his future artistic direction as a fusion of “spiritual beginnings” (his second period, from 1965) and worldly contemporaneity (his first, to 1965).

The Third Symphony (1956–64) is in four movements, scored for three piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contra-bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (including xylophone, bells and piano), and strings. In the Shostakovich tradition, such large forces are used more sparingly than excessively, as in the opening string paragraph, often to bleak colouristic effect (the muted trombone, tuba, tam-tam trio at the end of the first movement), and with an eerie use of microtanally gliding string glissandi. Evident throughout is a liberal handling of the twelve-note scale to fashion melodies, ostinati and textures, most satirically in the second movement’s initial clarinet solo; most incisively in the attacking cello / double-bass subject at the start of the finale. A Bergian willingness to read diatonic harmonies into some of these linear tone-inventions (the patterns of the flanking movements, for example) is vertically acknowledged in the third, where a recurrent vibraphone motif orbits a sonorously changing Mahlerian progression of slow, widespread, low-register triads in the major. (Conversely, all twelve semitones white-noise together in the long hushed non vibrato divisi string chord cadencing off the second movement.) Lisztian, metamorphic thematic references, the flute and clarinet phrases at the end of the second movement relating back to an idea in the first, originally given to trumpet (at the end, trombone); the finale’s opening trumpet assertion evolving out of the vibraphone solo of the third movement, organically unify the whole.

Ave Maria, the Third Piano Concerto (1968), written down at the insistence of the composer’s mother, Paulina Sergeyevna Karamanova (1901–92), is scored for an orchestra of similar size, less two piccolos and most of the percussion (only timpani and cymbals being retained). Unlike the symphony, its three movements, pervaded by a four-note descending motto derived from the trumpet’s opening Lydian-mode solo, are devotionally diatonic, in B-flat major, D major and E major (the defining Lydian fourth surely no coincidence), bitter-sweet resonances emotionally adding astringent to the vocabulary (for instance, the piano’s major / minor clash at the end of the first movement). Related solo cadenzas and dematerialising note-clouds play an important part in the structure, with five in the first movement and three in the last. Of these the third of the first (followed by an accompanied, desolately harmonized chorale version of the motto) and the first of the third are the most substantial. The Largo, its two lengthy solo paragraphs balancing the finale’s orchestral pair, is mesmerically obsessed with dropping, sighing figures and quicker oscillating minor thirds. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen”.

1997 Ateş Orga

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