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Gubaidulina: Feast during a Plague (2005) Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85) The Philadelphia Orchestra Sir Simon Rattle, Conductor, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia 18. 2.2006 (BH)




At age 75, Sofia Gubaidulina is still producing works that not only hit the ears and the brain, but sometimes the gut.  She is mesmerized by a vast spectrum of aural possibilities, and often explores timbral relationships in addition to chordal ones, combined with an intense spiritual bent.  This is not usually a gentle, pastoral spirituality – what one might expect, given her diminutive stature and simple demeanor – but a sort of crazed religious ecstasy. 


With a title that comes from a drama by Pushkin, Feast during a Plague is designed for a huge orchestra and as program annotator Paul Griffiths stealthily puts it, “an intervention from a new sound source.”  [Those wishing to remain surprised should skip this paragraph.]  The horns open the work with a fanfare theme that makes repeated appearances as it is passed around the orchestra throughout the 25 minutes.  In the midst of growling brass and some shrill bells, the strings begin waves of rising and falling figures – the sensation is of some kind of primal wailing.  Then, about halfway through the piece, the “new sound source” appears.  I wish everyone could have been a proverbial fly on the Verizon Hall wall to see the startled audience reaction.  From speakers came a short burst of what sounds like an electronic disco dance beat – scarcely four measures – that brazenly crashed into the ensemble like an unexpected party guest wearing some rhinestone-studded chartreuse and purple jacket – and then disappeared as hurriedly as it came.  It reappeared in these short bursts a number of times, as the orchestra continued on its path while now wrestling with the new intruder.  Ultimately, the fanfares and huge climaxes seem to exhaust themselves, leaving the final words for a solo string quartet with some percussion and high horns.


Questions abound, and don’t expect any answers here.  If the orchestra and the “other” sounds represent “the feast” and “the plague,” which is which?  Or perhaps the electronic material is an interruption of the feast?  Is the orchestra’s violent wrestling intended to demolish the “intruding” sound?  Who is feasting, and on what?  I suspect there is a cultural comment afoot here, but it’s too early to tell.  (New York listeners can hear the piece again in December at Carnegie Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony.)  But the unsettling feelings persist, and the lingering impression is a signal from a voice speaking from a strange, possibly forbidding place.


When Sir Simon re-entered from the wings as the curtain calls began, he fairly leaped down the stairs into the audience, where he grabbed Gubaidulina and whisked her up onstage, while the hooting and yelling increased.  She seemed gratified, perhaps mildly surprised by the strong audience reaction, even though I daresay at least some of us were still feeling a bit disoriented by what we had just heard.  As a humorous postscript, during intermission someone remarked, “What does that mean, ‘Feast during Prague?’”


Having heard Rattle recently in two of his four Berlin Philharmonic concerts, I was prepared for him to upend the Brahms Fourth Symphony, but what I am happy to report is that whatever retooling he did resulted in one of the most beautifully played and genuinely moving versions I’ve heard in some time. 


Beginning with a storm-laden, tempestuous opening movement, Rattle seemed to find a quality almost as disturbing as the Gubaidulina.  The orchestra sounded terrific, and here the cellos won the prize – that is, until the horn opening of the Andante moderato, and the sunny trumpets that followed.  Throughout, Rattle exercised an unfailingly light touch, often putting down his baton and using only his hands, gently coaxing the orchestra – sometimes lowering his hands altogether, seemingly basking in the sound pouring out.  It was mesmerizingly relaxed musicmaking, showing all parties in rapturous synchronization.  The galloping third movement seemed forged from a new metal, with Rattle impeccably timing the hushed moments.  Brahms’ drama needs someone who can set up the climaxes and make the most out of this symphony’s many surprises, and Rattle is just the man for the job.  The final Allegro energico e passionate emerged seething with sweat and almost as stormy as Mahler, a fine answer to those for whom Brahms seems too civilized, with too much drawing-room prettiness.  Evidently the audience felt the magic, too, and responded by summoning Rattle out four times, with most of the orchestra either tapping their bows, stomping their feet or applauding as well.  (Ms. Gubaidulina, just a few rows in front of me, seemed enchanted.)  The Philadelphia musicians obviously like playing with him, he likes collaborating with them, and we like witnessing the exciting results.  Pardon the cliché, but it’s a win-win situation for everyone.


Bruce Hodges


Photo © Jessica Mitchell, courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra




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