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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b.1931)
Dialog: Ich Und Du (2018) [22:28]
The Wrath of God (2020) [17:01]
The Light of the End (2003) [24:15]
Vadim Repin (violin: Ich und Du)
Gewandhaus Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. December 2019 (Dialog: Ich und Du) May 2021 (Wrath of God) June 2021 (Light of the End), Gewandhaus, Leipzig
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 1457 [63:44]

I will begin by wishing Sofia Gubaidulina, surely the world’s greatest living composer, a very happy 90th birthday! Rather than resting on her considerable laurels, this album of recent music is testimony to her continuing vitality and questing spirit. It also demonstrates her unwavering commitment to her chosen creative path, come what may.

Dialog: Ich und Du, written for the violinist Vadim Repin, is, in effect, her third violin concerto, though it is not in any sense a violin concerto in the Romantic mould. Whilst it confronts the soloist with ferocious technical challenges, there is precious little opportunity to show off. As the name suggests, it takes the form of a dialogue between violinist and orchestra that would seem to mirror the relationship between God and man or perhaps God and Gubaidulina. Whichever of those is the case, (the programme notes included are unclear on the subject), it is clearly a difficult relationship. The orchestra is craggy and severe for most of the piece, for all the violin’s entreaties.

Most of Gubaidulina’s music involves a process of disruption aimed at putting the listener into an altered state where a different kind of listening is possible. This might involve an unusual combination of instruments, extremes of pitch (high or low) or sometimes lengthy passages of uncompromisingly severe music as a kind of preparation for the revelations to come. Gubaidulina’s spiritual path is not an easy one. She has been quoted as saying that, for her, composition is prayer and it is clear that, for her, praying involves great struggle to achieve communion with God. I presume that for her, given her great faith, this struggle is as worthwhile for her spiritually as it is musically for the listener. I personally find her compositions move me both musically and spiritually.

Neither Ich und Du nor the Wrath of God arrive at any kind of spiritual release. The former seems to dramatise the impossibility of Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ relationship with God. Soloist and orchestra seem to move initially in different, drifting orbits with little in common between them. As the piece proceeds, the moments when they approach seem to generate great tension and dissonance. This leads to an extraordinary passage where the accompaniment is reduced to a mighty banging on drums. Again it is unclear whether this is a severe deity or the sinner knocking that the door might be opened onto him (or her)! It reminded me of the even more unflinching music and faith of Galina Ustvolskaya, the famous Lady with the Mallet.

This section seems to allow the two protagonists to draw a little closer, though the music remains tense and uneasy. The solo violin takes up the lamenting tone of much of the earlier orchestral material whilst the strings sigh along in massed densely dissonant chords. The soloist becomes increasingly animated in response, soaring right to the top of its register. The orchestral chords seek to suffocate it, but the long held high note persists even after a vast crash on the tam tam before sliding even further into the stratosphere. This is the closest this piece gets to consolation: a persistence in the face of adversity, seeking the divine on high. We realise that everything that has gone before was in preparation for this briefest of moments, this simplest of musical gestures. Our perception of the whole piece is altered by this defining event.

Repin is an ideal interpreter and the Gewandhaus under Andris Nelsons play their part in the dialogue ably. DG’s production is, as would be expected, superb.

The Wrath of God, composed alongside Ich und Du, offers even less reassurance, depicting God’s anger at man’s failings. It was developed from a movement from Gubaidulina’s oratorio, On Love and Hatred, and the composer is currently working on expanding it with a second movement. As it stands, it is dedicated “To the Great Beethoven” and at one point it quotes the first subject of the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th. As reviewers of its premiere noted, it has more than a touch of Shostakovich about it in its brooding, majestic opening. This music alternates with quieter, more mystical material. This latter style is very familiar from earlier pieces by Gubaidulina yet, unlike earlier pieces such as Offertorium, it offers no relief from the development of the brass-led music of the opening which, presumably, is intended to evoke the inescapable nature of God’s wrath.

Obviously there are no alternative recordings to compare with these performances, but I did feel that Nelsons’ accounts were a little lacking in bite, particularly in this work. They are expertly prepared and the orchestra play at the level one would expect for such an illustrious band but it all seems to lack something in terms of wildness. The climax of God’s wrath, led in by a militant side drum and topped off with ringing bells and thundering drums, is suitably awe-inspiring but I still can’t help feeling there is more to this piece than we get in this recording. Gubaidulina’s music should sound like the struggle over the fate of her eternal soul but it sounds just a fraction tame here. The piece concludes with fierce joy and the Beethoven quotation I mentioned earlier but no easy resolution. Indeed the final impression is rather like one of those forced joyful finales Shostakovich was required to write.

The Gewandhaus come into their own in the third piece on the programme which reflects a much less severe side to Gubaidulina’s art, but consequently it is a much stranger piece. It is also the oldest piece included, dating back to 2003.The music hinges on a musical symbol which pits a melody using a conventional harmonic scale against the same melody written using a 12-tone scale. This is intended to portray the irreconcilability of nature with what Gubaidulina calls “real life”. This generating musical idea is given its clearest expression about halfway through when the two melodies are played together in a duet between the horn and the cello.

As a listening experience, this work is less astringent than that might suggest. Even the duet mentioned is more poignant than ferocious. Much of the writing is extremely delicate and brilliant. I found myself wondering if these sections are meant to conjure up the fecundity of nature. Gubaidulina has spoken of the inevitability of pain emerging from the clash between man and nature and that pain does emerge out of the elaborate, filigree textures, anchoring the piece emotionally. The conflict takes the piece to a higher level achieving an ecstatic, harp festooned climax at the end before disappearing upwards, rather like the end of Ich und Du, but this time much more beatifically and in a shimmer of tinkling bells and high strings. This is Gubaidulina at her most approachable.

The three pieces on this disc produce a very satisfying programme and, whilst I don’t think I would choose any of them as an introduction to the profound world of Gubaidulina’s music, they do provide a glorious window on to this latest period in her remarkable career. It may be her birthday but it feels as if it is we listeners who have received the presents.

David McDade

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