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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Repentance (2008) [21:50]
Serenade (1960) [2:32]
Piano Sonata (1965) [21:10]
Sotto Voce (2010/2013) [23:13]
Wen-Sinn Yang (cello); Franz Halász (guitar); Jacob Kellermann (guitar); Lucas Brar (guitar); Philipp Stubenbrauch (double bass); Débora Halász (piano); Hariolf Schlichtig (viola)
rec. June 2013, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich. DDD
BIS BIS-2056 SACD [70:07]

Sofia Gubaidulina’s music has one characteristic that ought to make it difficult to play: its ‘voice’, the style in which she has chosen to wrap her various ‘messages’ of dismay, faith, exultation and despair. These defy assignment to a particular type or particular musical design. The composer has a rare gift of writing music of whose melodic and harmonic world as well as instrumental texture you are aware before you decide whether it is tonal, atonal, spectral or minimalist.

Inexperienced players run the risk of allowing their experience of ‘types’ of music to interfere with the more direct communication which is central to Gubaidulina’s ‘message’. They feel the need to set off in a certain direction, to predispose themselves to follow a certain playing style.

That doesn’t happen here. This CD is a collection, recorded last year, of Gubaidulina’s solo and chamber music. It’s a genre which is as important to her as her larger scale searing and imposing symphonic and choral works. All six players here achieve a commendable focus; they shine light of just the right intensity into and onto those ‘meanings’ possessed by the composer’s music. Technically successful, none here allows interpretation to obscure the music itself. This is just as Gubaidulina speaks straight to our ears with little or no intervening ‘business’.

The guitar features prominently. Some of the music on this CD is redolent, for instance, of a Spanish languor from the latter part of the last century - like the Serenade [tr.2] which was indeed written in 1960. Other pieces contrast, having a heavy, almost jazzy, syncopation; the Piano Sonata [trs. 3-5] from five years later, for example. Indeed, Gubaidulina often has a non-musical element that informs a work’s reception.

This can be - as above - an implied reference to another musical world, a text, or a near obsessive — in the good sense in which it worked for the likes of Elliott Carter — adherence to a musical figure, gesture or tonality. It may even be an allusion to the circumstances under which the composer had worked. An example is ‘Repentance’ [tr.1] because she regretted having to put off this commission for a cello work for Ivan Monighetti for so long. In recompense, perhaps, even in such a small-scale work, the cello is treated as a soloist to the other instrument's accompaniment.

The performers must achieve the right balance. On the one hand they must not allow such factors to submerge the present texture. On the other the intended, rhythm or sound must be clear and bring to fruition the very same precisely-wrought aspects of the music. That’s not easy. Yet the performers here expose Gubaidulina’s music for what it is. It’s neither pastiche nor approximation. The result is a sense of great respect on the listener's part.

Pace, tempo, nuance of texture, the relative dynamics afforded to instruments not usually combined ... all work to direct our attention. They affect what happens in our ‘mind’s ear’ immediately after a piece has finished. They direct us to what Gubaidulina really wrote and intended; not a distillation of what we may be used to as listeners bombarded with so many sound-worlds.

Sotto Voce [tr.6] for viola, double bass and two guitars is the most recent work (2010/2013) and in some ways sums up all these qualities of Gubaidulina’s work. It hints and suggests in the way that perhaps comparable works for cello — John Tavener’s or Schnittke’s — do not. It opposes melodiousness and curvature in favour of sparseness. It seems to have already explored the relationships between abstract musical idea and instrumental texture before Gubaidulina’s ink was dry, or her composition file saved. For the five musicians to have assembled the whole so convincingly is almost worth the price of the CD alone. That said, Débora Halász plays the piano in the Sonata just as compellingly.

The acoustic is close and sympathetic to the instruments’ combinations and characteristics. The booklet supplied by BIS makes a useful introduction to this aspect of the composer’s work. If you are intrigued by Gubaidulina and/or wish to keep up with this area of her activity, this is a haunting CD that will satisfy as much as it will enthral.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Dan Morgan