Gubaidulina: Recent Works

Dan Albertson

[September 2005.]

Sofia GUBAIDULINA: St. John Easter (2001). Unidentified soprano, tenor, baritone, bass; St. Petersburg Chamber Chorus, Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, NDR-Chor und Sinfonieorchester, Valery Gergiev (cond.). Under the Sign of Scorpio (2003). Friedrich Lips, bayan; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (cond.). The Light of the End (2003). Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kurt Masur (cond.). Private recordings generously provided by G. Schirmer, Inc. For more information, visit http://www.schirmer.com/.

Categories, mostly overused, are difficult to summarize. Neo-Romanticism has for some time been a dominant force in American music. The music by any one of its practitioners is usually indistinguishable from that of any other neo-Romantic — insipid and not particularly “Romantic,” in its sound, ideas or ideals. If this term is to be used at all, it should be applied to Sofia Gubaidulina and like-minded composers. In their pursuit of big-boned, harmonious music, alternating passion and stasis, they are the true inheritors of the Romantic tradition.

An orchestral piece by Gubaidulina comes with expectations: prominent metallic percussion, bustling strings, violent tutti climaxes, etc. A formula composer in the best sense of this term, she seldom disappoints. Gubaidulina is one of the most competent orchestral composers of our time, much like Helmut Lachenmann. Despite their vastly disparate aesthetics, they mine the orchestra’s resources as do few others. Both employ sounds big and small and materials ephemeral and eternal to produce massive canvases. For more than two decades, Gubaidulina has been concerned above all with essays for extended orchestras, predominantly stately in pace but always at the abyss’ edge. She is presently engaged on a joint commission by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which is expected to receive its premiere during 2006, her 75th-birthday year. I had not heard much of her music beyond the mid-1990s. In anticipation of the event, I sampled three of her recent large-scale works to hear for myself how, or indeed if, her style had changed.

St. John Easter is a companion work to the previous year’s St. John Passion. Together, the works last more than two and a half hours. I have only vague recollections of a broadcast of the Passion from five or so years ago, and I have not heard the Hänssler recording (Hänssler 098405000, also with Gergiev), so I approached the Easter installment with no preconceptions. The work is perhaps more immediately spiritual than her purely instrumental music allows her to be, but it is no less adventuresome or dark-hued. The 58-minute, 12-movement opus is by no means easy, even after repeated listenings. One actually delights in the music’s reluctance to disclose its secrets. The vocal lines carry a fair amount of drama, and the tessitura are not so skyward that subtleties are bypassed. Perhaps the finest, purest vocal portraits appear in the work’s second section, Mary Magdalene, which is not to ignore the clean solo and choral writing throughout. Voices, inherently limited, can grow tiresome — though here they seldom do. To avoid potential tedium, Gubaidulina interjects instrumental interludes or transitions, even though only one is identified as Interlude. Greater dynamism is to be found in the instrumental lines, ranging from the brass, bolstered by Wagner tubas, to the percussion, including a delicate waterphone. The organ’s mostly subservient role comes to the foreground to enhance vital turning points in the score, such as the comparatively joyous midway section The Rider on a White Horse. After the stern Judgment, where the orchestra invokes the Dies Irae motif, the rapture of the closing movement, I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth, serves to sum up the composer’s overall credo. This is a solemn, convincing and mysterious journey.

Half the length of Easter but no less grand, Under the Sign of Scorpio, the latest in a series featuring the bayan, is a full-fledged concerto for the composer’s close friend, Friedrich Lips. The work’s subtitle, Variations on Six Hexachords, encapsulating its basic premise, defers to a transcendence of its simple foundation with surprising vigor. I did not realize how versatile the bayan, generally used as an accompanying instrument, can be. Here it shrieks, sometimes frighteningly, or wails, or engages in what it does best: It breathes. Here its full-bodied sound is capable of standing above, or at least alongside, that of a large orchestra, something a Western accordion has more difficulty achieving. Gubaidulina does not revert to standard concerto devices of reducing the orchestra to clear airspace for the soloist or attempting to merge both at full volume. The two entities seem to inhabit their own realms for most of the piece. The musical motifs seldom overlap (at least to my ears), yet the feeling of constant conversation is never lost. The timpani are especially prominent as a middle ground between soloist and orchestra.

Gubaidulina completed The Light of the End, her previous American commission, immediately prior to Scorpio. Its salient feature is the peaceful confrontation — no oxymoron here — between tunings: the natural overtone row and the more rigorous Western system, a feature that traces back to her 1996 viola concerto, in which four string instruments are offset from the soloist and orchestra via lower tunings. After a bedewed opening on winds, harp, tubular bells, cymbals and high strings come tense minutes of uncertainty, thence to the work’s heart. Here lies a duet between the “natural” French horn and the “tempered” cello, each playing the same melody to great effect. After surging waves of belligerence from the orchestra, during which the brass and percussion, Messiaen-like, overwhelm in both their lucidity and raw savagery, the strings inject calm, ushering in a mildly hopeful epilogue. A few swipes of neutralizing wind chimes enter, followed by crotales (the light of the title), as the mediating strings remain, leaving all traces of conflict to one’s memory. Gubaidulina has yet again managed to make a powerful statement without her music, even at its most boisterous, becoming unhinged.

As the composer enters her 75th year, it is clear that Gubaidulina remains a leading figure not only because of her reputation, already beyond the point where it could possibly diminish. She deserves her position in the pantheon now as much as ever. Considering her interminable schedule of commissions, there should be much more to enjoy well into the next decade.