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  • The contemporary magic of Sonata for trombone and piano by Lazar Nikolov

    Prof. Atanas Karafezliev
    24 July, 2022

    The composer Lazar Nikolov (1922-2005) has long been recognized as one of the founders of modern Bulgarian music. With his works, many well-known Bulgarian performers established their name as interpreters of contemporary music. He is the author of 2 operas; 6 symphonies, 3 concertos, Symphonies for 13 strings and other works for symphonic, chamber and string orchestra, 3 string quartets, 14 pieces under the title "Metamorphoses" and other chamber works; arrangements for orchestra; choral songs; music for more than 30 films and theater productions. Lazar Nikolov has 25 sonatas for various instruments. I had the honor to get in touch with this work, which occupies an important place in the development of Bulgarian music in the second half of the 20th century. In 2022 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of this remarkable composer.

    Lazar Nikolov has an interesting life. He was born in Burgas and every time I pass by the place where his native house was, I feel proud to be a part of this city together with the great composer. Besides the author of extensive symphonic, chamber and vocal works, he was a brilliant pianist. We can hear this in the only surviving audio recording of him performing his First Piano Sonata as performed by the author. He was a student of Dimitar Nenov and that explains everything. As a young man, he worked as an accompanist at the State Choreographic School, and from 1961 - at the Bulgarian State Conservatory (nowadays NMA), where I remember him as a professor of score reading. 

    Lazar Nikolov - Fisrt Sonata for Piano, performed by the composer

    "For Lazar Nikolov, the sonata was equal to "musical-content", to "substantial", it was above all a dialogue, polyphony in the broadest sense of the word - exposition and opposition of various musical arguments..." Dragomir Yossifov - Bulgarian composer

    Lazar Nikolov's style is the subject of research by many Bulgarian musicologists. Some think that without such innovators as him, Europe would still only listen to Gregorian chants or Byzantine chants, while others believe that Nikolov is one of those who are building the transition to a new musical face of Bulgaria in front of Europe. Without a doubt, the composer is a bright innovator in Bulgarian musical culture, although he himself never admits it. He did not like being called an "innovator" - perhaps because of his introverted character, in which researchers highlight modesty as the main feature, and perhaps also because of another personal assessment of his work, which has remained unknown to us.

    Most analysts note that the refusal to use Bulgarian folklore material is characteristic of Lazar Nikolov's style. They make analogies with a similar European composer - Anton Webern, whose style they call "pure", i.e. cleared of folklore influence. Lazar Nikolov has never hidden his attitude towards the influence of our national folklore. Regardless of his creative attitude, the musicians who were close to the composer clearly perceived the bright nationality of his music. The famous Bulgarian conductor and composer Konstantin Iliev wrote in a letter to him: "Your music is national! No matter how much you deny this, your work is a product of the Bulgarian spirit, temperament, sensitivity, mentality."

    Lazar Nikolov wrote the Sonata for trombone and piano in 1985 - 1986. The work was performed for the first time in 1987 by trombonist Kostadin Bakardjiev and pianist Iliana Yotova. It was Bakardzhiev who provided me with the notes of the sonata – a hand-transcribed trombone solo with numerous notes, almost scribbled on it. My first job was to write everything clean and the "reliance" began. It took me 2 years to learn this sonata. This is music where you don't just play notes. It's music that keeps discovering new and new things and you can never play it the same way you did it the last time. Music at first glance chaotic, but at the same time very ordered, with clearly expressed themes, musical form, climaxes. Here, the technical challenges are not the most important in the interpretation. The role of the partners in the sonata duo is much more important. I consider this music unique in my repertoire.

    In the sonata for trombone and piano, Lazar Nikolov chooses the trombone as an equal sound partner of the piano. As a student of Dimitar Nenov and his close friend, the composer very much liked the powerful sound of his teacher's piano: "I liked this rich sound both as a force and as an impact." Later, in his piano works, L. Nikolov was constantly under the influence of this sound, and in the trombone sonata he sought the timbre partnership with another powerful instrument - the trombone.

    After the Trumpet Sonata, this is his second chamber work for brass and piano. With the later French horn Sonata (1998), a kind of brass sonata triptych was formed in his chamber work. Consistency as a personal characteristic and as a compositional strategy is one of the inherent traits of this author. Lazar Nikolov's intention was (like Paul Hindemith) to compose a sonata for each of the main orchestral instruments. It is no coincidence that the Sonata for trombone and piano by Lazar Nikolov was singled out by Konstantin Iliev as "exemplary" for the composer's sonata thinking.

    The sonata for trombone and piano has three movements, which, however, are rather three different states of the unified sound matter than complete, self-contained units.

    The first part moves between the energy and calming of the invoice. It is thematic and the strictest, most graphic in construction. It follows the ironic-contour sonata scheme typical of the author's attitude to the trombone. In many of his statements, Lazar Nikolov claims that breaking away from the scheme of the sonata, on whose scheme European musical thinking in general has been built for three centuries, cost him special efforts of thought. The author's tempo Energico is more of an indication of character than tempo. The first movement opens with a rousing, energetic motif in the trombone. The composer also used this theme in the chamber cantata Metamorphoses III for 2 sopranos and 10 instruments, written a year later than the Sonata for trombone and piano. Here the trombone and the piano are not in a soloist-accompanist relationship, but delineate two complete and independent musical worlds, from whose changing relationships the sonata character of the dramatic movement arises.

    Lazar Nikolov - sonata for trombone and piano, part 1, Atanas Karafezliev - trombone, Tsvetana Ivanova – piano

    The second part has a special atmosphere – it starts with the same tonal complex as the first, but here it is regrouped rhythmically, distributed in a different way between the partners. New micro-themes and micro-facts are born. Important for the trombonist performer is good air distribution to make individual phrases stand out. One gets the impression of singing - a terribly emotional moment. The Molto lento tempo, as well as the first part of the sonata, suggests the character of the musical fabric – drawn out, restrained, experiencing some sadness internally. After the contemplative and sublime opening section, which seems to pass into another sound dimension through the aleatory "veils" and glissandi of the piano and the use of sordina on the trombone, there follows something very original as a solution, which can be called a "scherzo-pantomime". The trombone part seems to incorporate the author's voice, which Konstantin Iliev characterizes in his book as "quiet, a bit husky, tenor". I have always called this section "The Voice of Lazarus" for myself, with all the wealth of associations and allusions that its name carries. 

    Lazar Nikolov - sonata for trombone and piano, part 2, Atanas Karafezliev - trombone, Tsvetana Ivanova – piano

    The third movement of the Sonata is a very special combination of rondo, sonata tension and toccata character. Austinity is a hallmark of the final part of the Sonata in a vivid combination with rhythmic and harmonic complementarity. The last bars charmingly play with the ambiguity of the harmonic field. Thus, in a soft, ironic resignation characteristic of the author, this magnificent Sonata by Lazar Nikolov ends.

    Lazar Nikolov - sonata for trombone and piano, part 3, Atanas Karafezliev - trombone, Tsvetana Ivanova – piano

    Pianist Tsvetana Ivanova and I have performed this work many times after the author's death. His wife Anna Nikolova was always present at the concerts, who listened with affection, and always after the concerts this kind woman brought a treat with sweet treats. This is how I will remember the great Bulgarian composer Lazar Nikolov. I hope that in the year of his 100th anniversary I have been able to remind him through this memory filled with respect and admiration for the great composer...  

    Translation in English: Tsvetelina V. Georgieva
    The article is available in Bulgarian and in Dutch
    Translation in Dutch: Ruben Vermeulen

    About the Artist: 
    Prof. Karafezliev is among the well-known Bulgarian trombone musicians - both as a performing artist and a teacher. His education is closely related to brass music since the beginning: he graduated from National School of Music and Stage Arts in Burgas and National Music Academy “Prof. Pancho Vladigerov'' in Sofia. Prof. Karafezliev’s career started in 1991 at the Symphony orchestra of the Bulgarian National Radio. He continues to work there as a leading brass section trombone player for almost 30 years. He made more than 200 records in contemporary and classical music for the BNR. His teaching career started in 1994 at the National School of Music “Lubomir Pipkov” in Sofia, as well as at the Instrumental Faculty of National Academy of Music. Since 2020 prof. Karafezliev is Head of the Chamber Music Department at Instrumental faculty of the Academy. He has numerous awards from national and international competitions both as a solo trombone player and as a member of different brass ensembles. He is also an initiator and a Head of the Summer Academy for Brass Ensembles and Percussion in Koprivshtitsa. His mission is to promote Bulgarian music for trombone and brass ensembles on a national and international level.

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