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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.



Harvey Steiman



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