Gubaidulina and Tchaikovsky: Gidon Kremer, violin,
San Francisco Symphony, Kurt Masur,
conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 28.10.05 (HS)
It probably would amuse
the contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina
that the concerto-ish piece she wrote for violinist Gidon Kremer
elicited a sharper and more satisfying performance from the
conductor Kurt Masur and the San Francisco Symphony than that crowd-pleasing
Russian warhorse, the Symphony
No. 5 of Tchaikovsky. Such was the case this past weekend,
with Kremer delivering a mesmerizing performance and Masur,
that old traditionalist, diving deep into the Gubaidulina's
dense, thorny, and ultimately highly spiritual score.
By contrast, the Tchaikovsky
symphony went by like a trolly laden
with rich pastries, leaving some marvelous tastes lingering
in the senses but also a sort of queasy sense of having overdone
it. Leaden tempos, thick textures and a dull rhythmic sense
robbed the music of much of its liveliness. It is a tribute
to the indestructibility of the score that it still whipped
up some momentum, particularly in the finale, but this performance
will never rank among my most memorable.
Offertorium, the violin piece, however, was endlessly invigorating.
I am not familiar at all with Gubadulina's
work, except for the odd CD that never grabbed me as it went
past on the home sound system. As a student in Moscow in the
1950s, her highly personal approach drew much tut-tutting
from the apparatchiks, who informed her that she was "on
the wrong path." None other than Dimitri Shostakovich, she later wrote, whispered in her ear
to stay on the path, not to compromise.
This 35-minute piece
was written in 1980, before Glasnost, and before she moved to
Germany, where she resides now. Although it was written for
Kremer, in fact the first performances in 1982 were given by
Oleg Kagan (who subsequently recorded
it with the Ministry of Culture Orchestra, available on BIS).
Kremer first performed it in 1985, with the New York Philharmonic
under Zubin Mehta, and it has been in his repertoire ever since.
It suits him well, making severe technical demands on the soloist
but never for mere flashiness. (He recorded it in the 1990s
on DG with Charles Duitoit conducting.)
The score immediately
impresses a listener for its clarity and color. This is a composer
in complete command of orchestral nuances, timbres and harmonic
juxtapositions. She never lets the orchestration drown out what
the violin is saying, a problem with so many modern concertos.
The music looks back, quoting Bach (and Webern quoting Bach) but uses the material not as a clever
aside but as the core building blocks of entirely new music.
It opens with the theme Bach used in his Musical
Offering, which Webern famously
orchestrated. In Webern's version, the theme is strung together by a variety
of instruments, each playing no more than one or two notes at
a time. Gubaidiulina does the same, only using different instruments.
In the first major departure,
she suspends the D minor melody on the penultimate trill (on
E and F). Instead of resolving to the tonic D, the violin picks
up the trill and takes off in a new direction. Over the next
several minutes, the composer erects a superstructure of new
music, some of it harshly dissonant, within which the Bach melody
gradually deconstructs, nibbled away from both ends. The long
development that follows alternates between loud clashes of
dissonance and gorgeous, almost hymn-like passages.
Eventually, the melody
reconstructs, reassembled bit by bit, almost as if it were crawling
to a mountain peak, all within a scaffolding of fresh sounds
that gradually rise in pitch and ratchet up the tension. Finally,
as if arriving at the peak, comes a long stretch of pure, modal
music, evoking hymns of the Russian Orthodox church. It's an astonishing moment, and the final pages are
nothing short of rapt.
The tall, trim-bearded
Masur, dapper in a tieless,
band-collar shirt and sleek, modern black suit, looks like a
conductor straight out of central casting. Better known for
his interpretations of Beethoven or Brahms than contemporary
composers, Masur threw himself into
this music. Inspired by Kremer's passion for it, he drew marvelously
detailed and emotional playing from the orchestra.
Too bad that energy
didn't carry over into the Tchaikovsky.