These are marvellous works, dedicated to two outstanding musicians.
The Canticle of the Sun is inscribed to that great
ambassador of music Mstislav Rostropovich who died in 2007.
The Lyre of Orpheus, which we will look at first, is
addressed to Gidon Kremer that prodigious virtuoso and enthusiastic
promoter of contemporary and often very challenging works. Kremer
is now over 70.
Sofia Gubaidulina has established herself as an outstanding
figure in European music; a natural successor to Shostakovich.
When we are still living at a time when women composers are
under-played and often under-valued she is one of the greatest
ever of her sex.
Her notes on The Lyre of Orpheus are quite complex. She
explains how the title was found. All intervals, she reminds
us, pulsate, even if inaudible. By choosing a minor second and
a perfect fifth she “searched for a pitch level for these intervals”.
These are set out in the booklet. The three pitches discovered
were D, E and A which not only contain another perfect fifth
but also an inverted one. The pitches, which are the strings
of Orpheus’s lyre led her to the so-called “chord of Orpheus”
the Greek God of Music you might say. They form the basic intervals
of the Pythagorean system. They sound together, pulsate in fact,
only at three very obvious moments in the work. I have simplified
her notes and concept but I trust you get the idea. The work
plays without a break and beginning with a single pitch played
pianissimo gradually builds, through a Shostakovitch-like broad
melody at about 15:00 into a powerful climax five minutes later.
Her control of a large canvas and emotional accumulation are
quite extraordinary. The solo violin plays a significant role,
but there is an ecstatic passage when it carouses with the solo
cello, which emerges from the ensemble. At other times it coalesces
with the pitched percussion, like the ‘glock’ and sometimes
with unpitched instruments and even the timpani. In his brief
paragraph in the booklet Kremer talks of Gubaidulina's
“mystical kingdom”. After a while you will also discover it.
This also occurs with the other work: The Canticle of the
Sun. The text on which it is based is supplied for us. I
say ‘based’, as at only very few moments is this work really
a setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous words. The chamber
choir are often silent for extended periods. When they do appear
they often chant only on one chord or on one note as a choir.
Sometimes just a soloist is heard - a low bass, for instance,
for the first verse. Around them the strings and the solo cellist
weave a thread of almost random pitches, creating a radiant,
heavenly but sometimes austere sound-world. This is mitigated
by colour in the form of various percussion sounds but especially
by the glitter of the celesta, which has a significant role.
For all of its forty-five minutes this work is mostly slow and
often very quiet. There are odd moments of silence and few climaxes.
The music exists, as it were, in a stasis.
Gubaidulina chose this text as Rostropovich was of a character
“often lit up by the sun, by sunlight, by sunny energy”. Even
those of us who only heard him play and never met him will surely
understand this. There are four sections which, playing without
a break, have headings. For example there’s the second one ‘Glorification
of the Creator, the maker of the Four Elements, Air, Water,
Fire and Earth’. The cellist, after playing in various unusual
ways, on the bridge of the cello for example, abandons it in
favour of a bass drum and a flexatone, before returning to his
cello. Ultimately he is left with just the cello’s very highest,
almost inaudible notes - sounds which had also been explored
in earlier sections.
These are fine and detailed live recordings from the amazing
Lockenhaus Festival in Austria. This was founded by Kremer as
an annual chamber music event and has been running in its present
form since 1981. Especially through headphones, you can hear
‘noises off’ but at no point do they become intrusive. Indeed
they are sufficient just to add to the atmosphere and tension.
The booklet has three lovely pictures of the composer both as
a younger woman and in later years. The text on which the ‘Canticle’
is based is also quoted in full.
No praise can be too high. This is true not only for Kremer,
who plays this piece with certainty and beauty, but also for
the Rostropovich substitute, as it were, Nicolas Altstaedt.
His management of the often used overtones, his rich tonal quality
and sense of ensemble are exemplary. The whole work is held
together superbly by Măris Sirmais. The wonderfully controlled
intonation of the Chamber Choir of Riga is top notch.