Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Dialog: Ich und Du (Violin Concerto No 3) (2018) [21:30]
The Wrath of God (2020) [17:02]
The Light of the End (2003) [24:14]
Vadim Repin (violin) (Dialog)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
rec. 2019/21, Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 1457 [62:46]
DG have done themselves proud with this release of premiere recordings of three of Sofia Gubaidulina’s more recent masterpieces on the occasion of her 90th birthday. David McDade reviewed the download of this disc in November, but I had not acquired the physical product until after the deadline had passed for my 2021 Recordings of the Year.
Gubaidulina continues to amaze approaching her ninth decade with the compositions on this disc. I have always been moved by her vast palette of orchestral colour that contains both brilliance and depth. It seems that many composers today favour the highest pitches of the orchestra along with much percussion, which granted can be thrilling, but which often seems cold and impersonal to me. I have never felt that way about Gubaidulina, who in no way stints on these elements, especially her distinctive use of percussion, but who also has a spiritual dimension that seems to be lacking elsewhere in much of the contemporary music being written.
As is pointed out in the notes in the CD booklet by Tobias Niederschlag, the title of Gubaidulina’s third violin concerto, Dialog: Ich und Du, is that of Martin Buber’s eponymous 1923 theological testament. This reflects the complex dialogue between the violin and the orchestra, where the latter with its heavy brass and percussion can overwhelm the former. Thanks to the recorded performance by the work’s dedicatee, Vadim Repin, however, the solo violin is always clearly audible. That was not necessarily the case on a YouTube video with Baiba Skride and the Frankfort Radio Symphony, which all the same is worth watching. The violin plays a melodic line throughout and is contrasted with bass drum volleys. There are also beautiful clarinet and horn solos. This concerto is quite a bit shorter than Gubaidulina’s earlier ones and, if not as extensive as those, still makes a powerful impression in this marvelous performance.
The most recent composition here, The Wrath of God, is also by some measure the least complex and a welcome change from the others. It is a powerful vision of the Day of Judgment, introduced by ominous low brass including Gubaidulina’s beloved Wagner tubas. Although she dedicated the work “to the Great Beethoven,” its monolithic character reminds me more of Bruckner with its unison chords, rather “Shostakovich meets Bruckner,” but with Gubaidulina’s own fingerprints everywhere. She does not spare on the percussion either, particularly in the depths of the orchestra. I found it very compelling, especially as performed here by the magnificent Leipzig Gewandhaus and Nelsons. Apparently, Gubaidulina is planning a companion piece for The Wrath of God, commissioned by the Boston Symphony and the Gewandhaus Orchestra and scored for the same instrumentation. It would be a culmination of her birthday celebrations and I look forward to hearing it.
In many ways, though, the most imposing of these works is the earliest, The Light of the End, which utilizes the full resources of the orchestra. Whirling string figures conjure images of a raging storm throughout that are offset by blasts of low brass and percussion. Yet in other places, such as around the 2:00 mark the lower strings intone a slower theme with dark and warm harmony. There is a depth of sonority here that to me reflects tragedy of a personal nature. However, much happens throughout the piece, including a cello and horn duet where the horn plays in natural tuning (which makes the instrument sound “out of tune” similar to Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings), while the cello’s tuning is of the usual equal temperament. Gubaidulina does not shortchange the lowest reaches of the orchestra, whether trombones and tuba or double basses. A huge climax is reached after 19:00 beginning in the bottom of the orchestra with tam-tam and cymbals before the piece quiets down and the work concludes with high strings and bells and, harp glissandi after the solo cello makes another appearance. All disappears as if in the ether. Does the conclusion of The Light of the End offer a ray of hope or transcendence to another sphere? Whatever her intentions, Gubaidulina has given us a remarkable piece that repays repeated listening.
Indeed, the works on this disc are resplendent. The performances, too, are all one could ask and recorded with state-of-the art sound. Although it is very early in the year, I suspect this will rank high on my list of favourite recordings reviewed in 2022.
Previous review: David McDade