Friday, 12 September 2014

This new release from BIS is a terrific addition to the catalogue of recordings of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, one of contemporary music’s most individual voices

Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931)  is now one of Russia’s most distinguished composers. Born in Chistopol, a small town in the Soviet Republic of Tatar, her family moved to Kazan where she attended the Kazan Conservatory in 1954, before moving to the Moscow Conservatory, where she studied as a post-graduate student of Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963).

It was as a film composer that she made her living during the Communist years, whilst leaving part of every year for her own compositions.  She was early attracted to the modernist enthusiasms of her contemporaries. A period of experimentation led to works such as the Concerto for bassoon and low instruments (1975), The Hour of the Soul (1976, rev.1988), and ground-breaking pieces such as De Profundis (1978).

From the late 1970s, religious elements became more obvious in Gubaidulina’s work with pieces such as the piano concerto, Introitus (1978), the violin concerto, Offertorium (1980, rev.1986), and Seven Words for cello, accordion and string orchestra (1982). Many of her religious works are on a large scale, including a cello concerto inspired by a poem about the Last Judgement, And: The Festivities at their Height (1993), Alleluia (1990), for chorus and orchestra, a Concerto for Cello and Chorus and the Passion according to St. John (2000). Much of Gubaidulina’s more recent work also reflects her fascination with ancient principles of proportion such as the Golden Section.

Since 1992, Gubaidulina has lived in Hamburg, Germany. She is a member of the musical academies in Frankfurt, Hamburg and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

BIS Records have just released a recording of Gubaidulina’s works for various instruments and in particular the guitar.

Entitled Repentance, after the title of the first work on this disc, for cello, three guitars and double bass, it also includes Serenade for solo guitar, a Piano Sonata and Sotto Voce for viola, double bass and two guitars performed by Jacob Kellermann, Lucas Brar and Franz Halász , (guitars) Hariolf Schlichtig (viola) , Wen-Sinn Yang (cello), Philipp Stubenrauch, (double bass)  and Débora Halász (piano)


Repentance for cello, 3 guitars and double bass was written in 2008 in response to a commission from the San Francisco Symphony of which members gave the first performance in San Francisco in 2009.

Deep pizzicato descending notes from the double bass, open this piece and are reflected by the guitars before leading to a cello melody, picked up by the guitars. The cello weaves around before more resonant guitar phrases appear, punctuated by a low double bass motif. Soon more incisive guitar chords introduce a passionate cello part that becomes more thoughtful as the cello develops the theme against strummed guitars. The guitars are allowed to expand on the theme, becoming quite florid whilst the cello interrupts passionately. Deep, ruminating double bass sounds appear with the guitar theme picked out. The music rises up with many little guitar effects and intricate cello motifs. These guitar effects include slides, use of plectrum and rubber balls falling on guitar strings, all adding their unusual effect.

The double bass leads the way as the music rises up with the cello taking a stridently passionate nature, as do the guitars. There is a pause as the guitars quietly strum with the cello adding a plangent melody that leads to a short working out of the material. The guitars gently re-enter, subtly raising the drama as the cello enters again in the rising theme, becoming intensely passionate with dynamic, strummed guitars. Eventually a rather manic sound emanates from the ensemble, high in pitch, slowly underpinned by the double bass that introduces a rapidly bowed motif.

A gentler guitar motif pulls the double bass back, quietening before the cello enters to add a sonorous, rich, deep theme that rises higher with harmonics as a repeated motif for guitars is picked out. The cello wavers its way lower, fading to silence, leaving a single guitar chord to end.

This is an entrancing, highly original work full of attractive ideas and melodies. The performers here, Jacob Kellermann, Lucas Brar and Franz Halász, (guitars), Wen-Sinn Yang (cello) and Philipp Stubenrauch, (double bass) are superb.

Serenade for solo guitar is a much earlier work dating from the early 1960’s and commissioned by the Moscow publisher Muzyka. Franz Halász is the soloist in this tonally free yet entirely melodious work that must be a real gift for guitarists in the way it combines traditional elements with more advanced ideas.  Halász provides a really fine performance.

Another work from the 1960’s is the Piano Sonata (1965) performed here by Débora Halász. It is dedicated to Henrietta Mirvis and given its Moscow premier in 1967 by Maria Gambryan.

It is the strummed piano string chord that opens the Allegro of this work that stands out as much as the virtuosic piano theme that follows, full of hints of jazz in its varying rhythms. Soon the music quietens to a plucked motif, alternated with a keyboard motif. This develops into a staccato repeated left hand rhythmic motif, against which the right hand creates a jazz like theme, though with its lack of a tonal base, it is beyond conventional jazz. The music moves through a myriad of ideas on this theme, seamlessly, with Débora Halász providing a very fine performance. Eventually the music quietens with wiry plucked strings occasionally sounding as a four note motif slowly leads to the coda, the music rising higher and fading.

In comparison with the Adagio, the first movement is more conventional. A scrape of string sounds opens this movement before the piano keyboard introduces a theme interspersed by more strummed strings. The keyboard motif tries to develop, continuing to slowly work out a theme, now higher on the keyboard and offset by intermittent lower chords. More strummed chords appear before deep keyboard chords are sounded, the music having become dark and somewhat menacing. The music rises up dramatically with strange wiry string sounds. A little motif higher up the keyboard sets a lighter contrast before the gentler coda.

A syncopated Allegretto brings a lightening of mood, though still with a formidable forward energy, superbly caught by this pianist and leading to a spectacularly dynamic coda.

This is a most imaginatively conceived sonata with moments of supreme virtuosity brilliantly handled by Débora Halász.

Sotto Voce brings us back to a similar grouping of instruments as Repentance, this time for viola, double bass and 2 guitars. Written at the request of double bass player, Alexander Suslin, a close friend of the composer, it was premiered in Passau in 2010 by Suslin, with Vladimir Bochkovsky (viola) and Pavel Khlopovsky and Yvonne Zehne (guitars). Sotto Voce receives its world premiere recording here by Jacob Kellermann and Lucas Brar (guitars), Hariolf Schlichtig (viola) and Philipp Stubenrauch, (double bass).

Hushed string sounds emerge against plucked notes, before the viola and double bass rise up with a melodic idea. The two guitars provide a contrasting line as the viola slides downwards. Soon the melody returns for viola and double bass, leading to variants. The viola slides downwards again as a little motif is plucked before the guitars and pizzicato viola launch a new idea through which a longer viola melody appears, supported by double bass – a beautiful section.

Soon a rhythmic section for guitars arrives with taps on the sound board and strange sliding, string sounds. The viola commences a solo theme soon joined by languid guitars and the double bass adding its deep resonance. More strange sliding strings appear as the guitars continue the melodic theme, joined by viola and double bass. Eventually the music speeds and becomes a little passionate with sliding string notes for guitars before the viola slowly rises up. There are more strange sliding strings before the double bass and guitars lead forward more quickly to a rhythmic section.

As the work progresses it becomes more passionate with string slides, then firm chords from all the players. There are more rapid bowed sounds with slides before a momentary pause that introduces a decisive theme for viola, double bass and guitars. There is a dramatic section before the coda is reached with little plucked and harmonic sounds that fade away.

This is a fascinating work that receives a terrific performance from these fine players.

This new release is a terrific addition to the catalogue of recordings of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, one of contemporary music’s most individual voices.

The recording made at Studio 2 of Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany is excellent as are the booklet notes.

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