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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair - concerto for flute and large orchestra (2005) [29:55]
Sieben Worte (Seven Words) for cello, bayan (accordion) and strings (1982) [31:24]
Sharon Bezaly (flute); Torleif Thedéen (cello); Mie Miki (accordion)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago
rec. Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden, May 2005 (flute concerto); August 2004 (Sieben Worte)
BIS SACD 1449 [61:19]

This forthcoming release from the BIS label, adding to their repertoire of post-Soviet contemporary works, contains two works from the Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina. The first is a new flute concerto, performed here as a world premiere by its dedicatee, the Israeli-born flautist Sharon Bezaly. It was recorded in the presence of the composer. The second is the same composer’s setting of the Seven Last Words from the Cross, a purely instrumental work from 1982.
The title of the flute concerto is taken from the poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ by T.S. Eliot. The pairing of a work inspired by Ash Wednesday with a work inspired by and drawing closely on Good Friday makes it clear from the outset that the composer’s profound religious faith is a significant influence - as elsewhere in much of her music - and makes this disc a seasonal release at this time of year. T.S. Eliot has been an inspiration for Gubaidulina previously, in the vocal settings, Hommage which accompany her Violin Concerto on the Deutsche Grammophon recording featuring Gidon Kremer. However, the composer states that in the flute concerto it was not her intention to represent emotional states in the title by musical means. Rather it uses acoustic effects of tone intervals.
‘ This precise moment – when a tone emerges from the pulsation – can be regarded as a metaphor for our hope. A gradual slowing down of the pulsating difference tone will lead ultimately to a disappearance of the sound, and finally also of the pulse – a metaphor for our despair.’
The music sussurates, swelling and dwindling alternately in a work which is gentle but intense. Hers is an understated sound-world more reminiscent of the earlier string quartets, the Viola Concerto or perhaps the Piano Concerto ‘Introitus’ than of some of the better known and more extrovert works such as the stunningly beautiful ‘Canticle of the Sun’ for Rostropovich: my own favourite CD purchase of 2005. It calls for concentrated listening to fully appreciate its intense nature. One might also think of the sound-world of Kancheli, whose viola concerto ‘Styx’ accompanies Gubaidulina’s on the Deutsche Grammophon recording with Yuri Bashmet (471 494-2). That said, this concerto never quite reaches the outbursts of loud aggressive sound which contrast with alternating pianissimo in much of Kancheli’s output.
Sharon Bezaly’s playing is virtuosic in the flute concerto which is dedicated to her. She was the winner of Klassic Echo’s ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ award in Germany in 2002 and is particularly known for her command of circular breathing. Her playing has inspired several dedicated concertos, and her recording ‘Nordic Spell’ is a previous Recording of the Month on this site, as well as a winner of a MIDEM Classical Award in 2006 (see review). Her 2005 recording of Mozart’s Flute Concertos has also received great acclaim, showing her talent to stretch across a wide range of repertoire.
Sieben Worte uses purely instrumental means to illustrate the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, a theme which has inspired Heinrich Schütz - who is quoted in the fifth movement of this work and Joseph Haydn. More recently, James Macmillan (CDA 67460 on Hyperion, inter alia), another contemporary composer whose work is often inspired by his own profound religious faith has also explored this theme. It is a much more overtly religious work than the flute concerto, and much of its realm is austere, pared down, almost bleak, conveying effectively the text’s sense of desolation. One is reminded of Gubaidulina’s St John Passion - performed at the 2002 Proms by the Kirov under Gergiev. However, there are also sections of contrasting tenderness, such as the second movement, ‘Weib, siehe, das ist dein Sohn. Siehe, das ist deine Mutter’ (in which Jesus commends his mother to the care of the disciple he has loved. Listen out also for the musical evocation of Paradise in the fourth movement ‘Wahrlich, ich sage dir: Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradiese sein’ where the flute has a prominent role; a link to the pairing of the works here. The fourth movement is almost reminiscent of Messiaen. The work ends with a gentle sense of completion and trust after the agony of death. The last movement seems almost like a coda, its shimmering glissandi building and then dropping away, as an image of the spirit’s departure from the earthly plane.
Again, the soloists are musicians of considerable distinction, and both are Professors of Music (Thedéen at the Edsberg Music Institute in Stockholm, and Miki at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen (Germany)) as well as performers of international repute. Thedéen, who masters this technically demanding role with apparent effortlessness, has made other recordings of both classical and contemporary works, notably a CD of the Shostakovich cello concerti also on BIS (BIS-CD-803/04).
The bayan, the other solo instrument in this work, is a Russian type of accordion. Gubaidulina has written another religious work for it, this time as a solo, De Profundis (paired with Sieben Worte on the recording by ECM (ECMNS1775CD). Both show an unexpected subtlety to an instrument often associated mainly with fairs and cafes. Mie Miki, who not only plays the bayan but had the honour of introducing the accordion to the People’s Republic of China, has personally inspired and instigated more than fifty new solo and chamber works for her instrument.
Technically this is an impressive recording. A distinguished international cast perform demanding contemporary repertoire which is captured with sophisticated modern technology. An introduction to each work by the composer herself is a further bonus. I have a small grumble, though, about the accompanying notes: given that the body of these appears in German, English and French it would have been helpful to a non-German reader to have translations of the titles of the movements of the Sieben Worte and all the more so given the programmatic nature of the work. This is a small but annoying omission, which might have been excusable in a budget edition but in my view merits comments here in this relatively lavish version.
This is not the only recording available of Gubaidulina’s Sieben Worte/Seven Words (some editions use the English title), so the question arises as to whether it is the most preferable. Clearly, it is the most recent and the most technically advanced. Serious fans of Gubaidulina’s own music, or of post-Soviet contemporary Russian music will undoubtedly welcome this disc, both for the high quality recording of Sieben Worte and for the fascinating and distinguished flute concerto, which is the composer’s newest work. However they may already have one or more of the existing recordings - which are very satisfactory, although not as technically advanced as this - of the Sieben Worte. Those with an interest primarily in modern religious music, or in the bayan, might prefer the mid-price pairing with De Profundis. This is the most readily available version of the latter and makes more thematic sense. Serious fans will want to have both of these editions. However mention should be made of a budget version from Naxos featuring the Camerata Transylanica under the title of ‘Chamber Collection’ (8.553557), which would be an excellent introduction to the composer’s work at the usual bargain price.
Those with an interest primarily in contemporary music for the flute, or in Sharon Bezaly’s performances, will enjoy this concerto, but may not entirely welcome the pairing. If they are not entirely familiar with Gubaidulina’s oeuvre, they may find it interesting to listen also to her ‘Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion’ which is paired with the Rostropovich performance of ‘Canticle the Sun’ EMI Classics, 5 57153 2.
For those seeking an introduction to the composer’s work, this disc would not make the easiest starting point. Both the works, although important and major pieces reflect one side of her work, one which is subtle, introspective, demanding and deeply religious. It is a popular, but inaccurate view that these are the only attributes of the composer and that her work is ‘difficult’.
The string concertos are all more accessible than either of these works, whilst still displaying very considerable technical virtuosity. The Rostropovich recording of the cello concerto whilst rooted firmly in the composer’s religious faith - she uses words of St Francis as her inspiration - has a more universal outlook and a transcendent beauty which could hardly fail to inspire the listener. The violin concerto, ‘Offertorium’, and particularly the Deutsche Grammophon version (471 625-2) featuring Gidon Kremer, whose style is ideally suited to Gubaidulina’s work, shows quirkiness, humour and lightness of touch - qualities less readily associated with this composer’s output - in a performance which is still one of great technical virtuosity. Its pairing with the Eliot songs shows a representative selection of the composer’s style, which could be helpful as an introduction. The Naxos disc is also commendable as a well priced introduction giving a selection of the composer’s, admittedly earlier, works. Mention should also be made of the St John Passion (available on Hänssler Classics 98.405), one of the last decade’s most important new religious or choral works, and one which is surprisingly accessible once one become accustomed to its distinctive sound-world.
Overall, this is a technically superior disc in which an interesting new concerto, outstandingly performed by its dedicatee, is paired with an up to date edition of one of the composer’s most frequently recorded works. Duplication may limit its appeal a little, as may the relative lack of contrast between the works in comparison with some of the other recorded collections. However, for those with a serious interest in the composer and her contemporaries, it is a must.
Julie Williams


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