Sofia Gubaidulina

Mike Silverton

[August 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:1.]

Grattez un Russe et vous trouverez un Tartare.” With Sofia Gubaidulina, one needn’t scratch hard. Born in the Tatar Republic in 1931, the composer resides in Stuttgart — the West, hands-on familiarity with European art music’s vanguard. Yet even today, as globalization homogenizes cultures, Gubaidulina’s music looks to exotic frontiers in other than comfortably ersatz terms.

In an interview with Jean-Pierre Derrien, Pierre Boulez speaks of “long-term planning” — a symphony’s grand architecture, for example — as “something … from the 19th century,” which has since given rise “to a reaction against Romantic excess — not just on the part of Stravinsky and Ravel, but of other composers, too … .” By way of contrast, Boulez introduces “panels,” a succession of tableaux, in characterizing music from Bach’s passions, through Debussy to the present. The analogy to painting helps, particularly with regard to Sofia Gubaidulina, in whom cohabit other key tendencies giving rise to enigmas. For example, her music’s tradition-connected spirituality suggests a conventional resolution which, rather than arriving, turns corner upon corner. A moment arrives, gives way to the next. Panels.

Like Messiaen, Gubaidulina wears her religiosity in her titles: Rejoice!, Seven Words, In Croce, De Profundis, Et exspecto, Misterioso, and so on. Other music, notably the several-times-recorded Pro et Contra (1989), bears secular titles, yet throughout the composer’s oeuvre incense-scented atmospheres waft. The three-part Pro et Contra, for orchestra, embraces as its core — indeed at its core, the middle movement’s center — an old Russian Alleluja. Which brings us to a pitfall peculiar to fin-de-siècle art music of grandiose, emotive demeanor. It rarely ever transcends kitsch. Another impediment is exhaustion of means, stale rhetoric, a former time’s coin. Style runs its course, and it helps to know when to climb down from the bandwagon or, depending on one’s station, remain seated. John Williams (E.T., Star Wars, The Return of the Jedi, etc.) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, etc.) are exemplary traffickers in the suprafamiliar of a semisymphonic-operatic cast. To call either to task for indifference to the cutting edge is, of course, absurd. How does one measure innovation absent the cozy, exaltation absent banality?

If it is well and interestingly made, purely abstract, “absolute” music has to work hard at sounding trite. Conversely, new music that sets out to “say” something of an extra-musical nature had better be damned good lest it sound trite. Gubaidulina has a message to convey. This isn’t music about itself, à la Webern, Babbitt, Carter, Conlon Nancarrow, or Franco Donatoni. What makes her work so engaging is the manner in which the composer transcends kitsch in the humid space she occupies. For live-recorded confirmation, go to a cpo CD, 999 164-2, Sofia Gubaidulina / Orchestral Music. The disc offers performances by North German Radio’s Hannover Radio-Philharmonic under the direction of Johannes Kalitzke and Bernhard Klee in performances of Pro et Contra and Fairy Tale Poem, both for orchestra, and Concordanza, for chamber ensemble. Klee and Kalitzke (the latter a composer) are first-rate advocates, the ensembles are solid, and it’s a good-sounding production. Other discs to investigate:

Sony Classical SK 53 960, pianist Andreas Haefliger, with (again) NDR’s Hannover Radio-Philharmonic, Bernhard Klee conducting. Three works for solo piano, all of interest, range in time from ’62 to ’69. The disc is a personal favorite owing to a marvel entitled Introitus: Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1978). Note the ambiguity. Introitus is Latin for entrance; Introit is liturgical, a musical aspect of the High Mass. It’s otherwise an apparently secular work, as if with Gubaidulina that makes a difference! The composer bares her master-colorist’s chops in the two-and-a-half minute introduction to the piano’s first entrance. It begins in calm with winds so deftly interlaced that we don’t take note of the strings till they rise to a brief ecstatic shout, the first of a motif. I’ve become fixated on this concerto as a key to what Gubaidulina’s about. For a start, it’s beautiful. Gubaidulina quite consciously writes beautiful music, as other composers, equally consciously, strive to avoid it. Perhaps more significantly, Introitus is elusive. Gubaidulina is among the most elusive of living composers, and so my gratitude for Boulez’s liberating panels. They help one to understand that Gubaidulina’s work moves through moments, as if through an idealized place, yes, but not as a plot which, in order to conclude, must to gather in and resolve its aspects. On first or second hearing, one wants to say, “Lovely! What just happened?”

Like her countryman, the late Alfred Schnittke, Gubaidulina squirmed for a time under the thumb of culturecrats. Schnittke wrote symphonies. To aspire to the symphony, that most plot-needy of musical vessels (this side of opera), suggests a modus at odds with Gubaidulina’s. Yet they shared a survival tactic: “When a [Soviet] critic in 1963 praised her impeccable technique but belittled her intellectual position saying, ’She is unable to represent with sufficient clarity and directness the power of the bright and joyous sides of life,’ she was advised by [Shostakovitch] to continue following her ’mistaken path.’ Gubaidulina took this advice … and as a result endured bitter privation. She earned her living by writing film music … ,” as did Schnittke with considerable success. Dorothea Redepenning’s words are from a Wergo CD, 286 263-2: Sieben Worte (Seven Words), for cello, accordion, and strings; In Croce, for cello and accordion, a 1992 adaptation by the composer of the original 1979 instrumentation for cello and organ. Seven Words pays septenary homage to Heinrich Schütz’s cantata, The Seven Last Words of Christ. In view of Pro et Contra’s hub-centered symmetry, not so coincidentally, the fourth, or middle, part (My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?) serves by dint of its nine-plus-minute length as the keystone. In these works and others, Gubaidulina elevates the accordion (or its Russian equivalent, the bayan) to heights of expressivity. Folk enthusiasts need not apply. The composer’s mastery over color and mood receives further confirmation in either work’s astonishing textures. In Seven Words, the cello-accordion duo “speak” as aspects of a single voice, that of Christ — as bold a challenge, in its way, as mapping out a symphony.

I’d bet the ranch that no audiophile journalist has ever had a good word to say for Melodiya’s engineering. The Russian label tends to hot, garish sonics. Here too, I’m obliged to report; however, in view of the program, it’s a pleasure to judge a 1990 release in terms of not-badness over god-awful: Melodiya SUCD 10-00109 offers a remarkably pungent The Seven Last Words (as it’s identified here), with cellist Vladimir Tonkha and accordionist Friedrich Lips, Timur Mynhaev conducting the Collegium Musicum Chamber Orchestra (of which city I cannot say). Cello, accordion and strings play for these ears to rapturous, idiomatic perfection. Discmates consist of the gorgeously histrionic Rubayat, Cantata for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble on Verses by Khakani, Hafiz and Omar Khayyam (1969), with baritone Sergei Yakovenko, the well known Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducting an unnamed ensemble, along with a surprise, Vivente — Non Vivente (no date provided), for “synthesizer ANS [?],” the composer at switches, keys, buttons and knobs. I’ve done several painful lifetimes of electronic-music reviewing for Fanfare. With that as background, where I pray it remain, I hear Vivente — Non Vivente as characteristically imaginative. Gubaidulina is incapable of writing boring music. The notes are abysmal. The real problem here is finding this disc. Not to despair entirely: see my last paragraph.

We continue with the accordion — promoted for the wary to “classical,” lest they think they’ve wandered into a Polish wedding — on BIS CD 710: Silenzio, five pieces for classical accordion, violin and cello (1991); De profundis, for classical accordion solo (1978); Et exspecto, sonata for classical accordion solo (1978), along with an intruder, In Erwartung, for saxophone quartet and six percussionists (1994). It means “in expectation,” but despite the likely allusion to Schoenberg’s monodrama, it shares none of the latter’s Expressionist vapors, nor is it nearly as rumbustious as “six percussionists” might suggest. A recent work, rather, of considerable charm and delicacy, and this from someone who, with regard to saxophone quartets, prefers traffic jams. (Geir Draugsvoll, classical accordion; Arne Balk Møller, violin; Henrik Brendstrup, cello; Raschèr Saxophone Quartet; Kroumata Percussion Ensemble.)

The Danish Quartet (Tim Frederiksen, Arne Balk-Møller, violins; Claus Myrup, viola; Henrik Brendstrup, cello) perform Gubaidulina’s String Quartets 1-3 and Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello on cpo 999 064-2, a 1994 release co-produced with Radio Bremen. Heartily recommended, especially for chamber-music buffs. Fine performances, great recording. One problem cannot be helped. Toward the conclusion of String Quartet No. 1 (1971), the players distance themselves toward the four corners of the stage in a gesture to isolation. As solid an image as my audio system projects, two-channel stereo cannot do the maneuver full justice. It really needs to be seen. Annotator Vera Lumpe speaks of the quartet’s “glissandi of fading volume, heavy accents of furious figuration … inserts of silence … lability and restlessness … An old-fashioned [cello] litany seems lost, … a voice from the past, and the mood at the end is desolate.” Yes, but what a trip! And keep in mind Boulez’s panels. It’s that kind of a tour. In sum, music of remarkable contrasts: String Quartet No. 3 (1987) engages in a length of luminous pizzicato giving on to brilliant glissandi, thence to fragile, insecure chords, a cello lament, and I’ve only sketched in a moment’s activity. As perhaps a crowning achievement, none of this plays as hectic or perverse.

In his enthusiasm for new music — he was an early Schnittke champion — Gidon Kremer reminds me of Rostropovitch. If I’ve aroused your interest in Madam G., you must not neglect a Deutsche Grammophon CD, 427 336-2, Offertorium (1980), Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which the composer wrote for its present performer: Gidon Kremer, violin; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conducting; and Hommage à T. S. Eliot (1987), for Octet and Soprano: Christine Whittlesey, soprano; Gidon Kremer, Isabelle van Keulen, violins; Tabea Zimmerman, viola; David Geringas, cello; Alois Posch, double bass; Eduard Brunner, clarinet; Klaus Thunemann, bassoon; Radovan Vlatkovi , horn. The Offertory (in Latin, Offertorium) is another musical aspect of the Mass, but rather than a liturgical tune, Gubaidulina’s concerto turns on the Royal Theme of Bach’s secular Musical Offering. According to Gubaidulina, “The theme [offers] itself up as a sacrifice.” Interesting term. It reminds us that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture echoes those pagan rites Mussorgsky celebrates in St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. Bach’s Royal Theme remains approximately visible for much of the work, is later turned around, and in such astonishing garments! Rimsky-Korsakov, a stellar orchestrator, has nothing on Gubaidulina. Offertorium plays for this listener as a late-century jewel.

Other good prospects, commentary nil to minimal: col legno WWE 1CD 31881, Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra (1993), David Geringas, cello, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conducting; Ten Preludes for Cello (1974), Vladimir Tonkha, cello.

BIS CD 636, Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings (1975), Concordanza, for chamber ensemble (1971), Detto II, for cello and chamber ensemble (1972), Harri Ahmas, bassoon, Ilkka Pälli, cello, Lahti Chamber Ensemble, Osmo Vänskä, conducting.

KOCH Schwann 3-1170-2, Gubaidulina: Quartet for Four Flutes (1977) and Quasi hoketus, for viola, bassoon and piano (1984); Elena Firssova: Suite for viola solo, Meditation in a Japanese Garden, for flute, viola and piano; Galina Ustvolskaya, Composition No. 1, Dona nobis pacem, for viola, bassoon and piano, various instrumentalists. As offputing as I find programs by gender, or worse still, sexual preference, if you don’t know her, this disc introduces Galina Ustvolskaya, one of new music’s more interesting eccentrics.

The same recording of (different spelling, see above) Rubaiyat, Cantata for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble, appears on a BMG CD, 74321 49957 2, one of a series, Musica Non Grata. The disc includes excellent performances of Detto II, for cello and chamber ensemble, Misterioso, for seven percussionists, and Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings. Excepting Misterioso, a recent recording, these Melodiya masters from the ’70’s have been treated to “20 Bit Audio Processing, NoNOISE Remastering, Sonic Solutions Turbo-Bit Mapping” — the old college try.

Happy discoveries!