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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Repentance for cello, three guitars and double bass (2008) [21:50] *
Serenade for solo guitar (1960) [2:32] **
Piano Sonata (1965) [21:10] ***
Sotto voce (2010-2013) [23:13] ****
* Wen-Sinn Yang (cello), Franz Halász (guitar I), Jacob Kellermann (guitar II), Lucas Brar (guitar III), Philipp Stubenrauch (double bass)
** Franz Halász (guitar)
*** Débora Halász (piano)
**** Hariolf Schlichtig (viola), Philipp Stubenrauch (double bass), Jacob Kellermann (guitar I), Lucas Brar (guitar II)
rec. June 2013, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany
reviewed as a 24/48 download
BIS BIS-2056 SACD [70:07]

If you find getting to grips with much contemporary music is like trying to cuddle a roll of razor wire then you have my sympathy. Some works/composers seem hell-bent on repelling all advances, and past encounters with Sofia Gubaidulina have left me perplexed to say the least. However, this guitar-dominated collection caught my eye, as did the presence of Franz Halász; back in 2011 I welcomed the latter’s ‘thoughtful and engaging’ Henze album (review). This new SACD/download, which features the world premiere recording of Sotto voce, is just the latest in a long line of Gubaidulina offerings from BIS, who are well known for their commitment to new music.

Repentance, a commission from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra – who gave its first performance – is not the hair-shirted piece one might assume from its title. Indeed, it’s more of a belated apology from the composer, who took longer than expected to fulfil her agreed task. As a work it’s reasonably accessible, although fans of the classical guitar may feel the preponderance of chordal backing isn’t particularly inventive or rewarding. That said, the composer calls for the bouncing effect of bow on strings to be replicated by rubber balls being dropped on the guitar strings, which may seem a little contrived for some listeners.

There’s a degree of improvisation as well, but despite the presence of three fine guitarists I was most taken by the striking presence of the cello and double bass, both of which are recorded with remarkable fidelity. Admittedly Repentance is not the most grateful of pieces, but subsequent listening does help to prise open the music’s more shuttered moments. The fairly close recording is first-class though, and anyone who rejoices in the competing sonorities of these instruments will find much to enjoy here. However, those of a less adventurous disposition might wish to pass over this one.

The tiny Serenade, a commission from a Moscow publishing house, is described as ‘music for pleasure’. And so it proves, for Halász imbues the work with a warmth and colour that sets it apart from the comparatively austere and monochrome world of Repentance. As for the Piano Sonata, played by his Brazilian-born wife Débora, it's light and athletic, with jazzy underpinnings. There’s a pleasing unity and inventiveness to the writing, which allows us fleeting moments of rumination and reflection. As Helmut Peters points out on his liner-notes there are signs of the seemingly obligatory flirtation with dodecaphony, but there’s more than enough sparkle and drive in the piece to compensate for that. Débora Halász is a bright and varied soloist; she’s well recorded too.

In the past I’ve grumbled that BIS recordings often need more volume than I feel is ideal, but that’s certainly not an issue here. True, the dynamics of the sonata aren’t at all extreme, but I do like the way the quieter, sustained splashes of sound – and their thrilling decay - are caught here. Not only that there’s an air of concentration here – a heightened aural awareness  that you won’t find anywhere else in this collection. Indeed, if you were to download just one item from this album it must be this one. It's mighty impressive, both as a piece and as a performance.

The instrumental combination and complex fingerings of Sotto voce make for an altogether darker and more melancholic sound world. Philipp Stubenrauch’s double-bass playing is full of ambiguity when heard alongside the pointillistic dottings of the guitars and the viola’s lyrical flights. Plucking and beating the bodies of these instruments produces a remarkably agile set of rhythms, and the guitars bring a welcome stability to this wobblesome universe. This too is a work of considerable imagination, and I found myself irresistibly drawn to its tangential charm. That may seem like a strange characterisation, but there’s something resolutely engaging - even personal - about Sotto voce that justifies such a tag.

As always with downloads one is able to cherry-pick the best bits and discard the rest. I seldom do that, although if you’re new to Gubaidulina’s music I’d suggest you try the sonata and Sotto voce first; Repentance certainly isn’t a roll of razor wire, but it’s not terribly embraceable either.

Gubaidulina fans will want this one; newbies should proceed with caution, though.

Dan Morgan