Gubaidulina orchestral 9991642
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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Orchestral Music
Pro et Contra (1989) [33:50]
Concordanza (1971) [11:05]
Fairytale Poem (1971) [12:12]
Radiophilharmonie Hannover des NDR/Johannes Kalitzke, Bernard Klee
rec. live, 15 November 1991 (Pro et Contra); 1-3 September 1993 (Concordanza); live 5-6 November 1992 (Fairytale Poem)
First released in 1994, re-issued 2022
CPO 999164-2 [57:42]

In a 1990 BBC documentary, Gubaidulina spoke lovingly of how her father, a surveyor, would take her to one of his sites where they would walk for hours without ever saying a word. Her father, she says, was the type who thought a lot and spoke little. These walks were vitally important experiences for her, establishing in her mind different ways of communication, which ultimately drew her to music and influenced her compositional style.

This seems to me evident in Pro et Contra – a quiet, perambulatory work for much of its thirty-five minutes, until its exciting final moments. The “pro et contra” is felt in the way the music acts for and against its central theme, the Russian alleluia chant. We hear fragments of the chant from the beginning, moving polyphonically through woodwinds and bells, until the music transforms into a kind of texture often found in Gubaidulina’s work: trills, glissandi, quiet rumblings, background percussion, spare lines. The music then returns and departs from the chant many times. The instruments interweave with extraordinary orchestral clarity, assisted by an expertly conducted and recorded sound. The first movement mostly uses quiet dynamics and lean textures; it is intensely fascinating, and at times quite agitated, but not eventful.

In the second movement we hear the chant more clearly, at one point with a harmonisation which is quiet yet grand, and never stated in full. Then the final movement begins in a strict rhythm and the chant almost metamorphoses into dance. The music is increasingly agitated and in the last few minutes it climaxes into something like a fanfare and march. This is all relatively brief; the music soon returns to its former quiet state. We hear beautifully ethereal percussion, and finally the music disappears.

It is an astonishing work, brilliantly performed by Johannes Kalitzke and the NDR Radiophilharmonie. There have been two other recordings – fewer than I would have expected. I am familiar with the one by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka and released on BIS (catalogue no. BIS-668), but I think the performance and audio quality are slightly better on this new disc. The BIS recording has a deep, resonant sound which gives, in particular, the ending climax and march a frightening aspect, but I prefer the clarity and balance of the Radiophilharmonie’s performance and recording.

I should note Pro et Contra’s slightly convoluted history. It was originally intended to form a two-part cycle with her oratorio Alleluia. A couple of years later, Valentin Proczynsk and Mstislav Rostropovich suggested to her the possibility of writing a ballet for the Seville Expo '92. Instead of composing an entirely new score, she took Pro et Contra and Alleluia and added a third work, Lauda, to form a trilogy titled Prayer for the Age of Aquarius. Alleluia can be found in a superb recording by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir (catalogue no. CHAN9523), but Lauda, as far as I can tell, has never been recorded. It would make for a superb release if someone were to record the entire trilogy.

The next two works are from an earlier period, written in 1971 before Gubaidulina had broken through in the West. However, her style is already clear and developed in these works. Concordanza, contrary to what one might expect from the title (though hardly surprising for Gubaidulina), begins with a long, discordant section, then there is a beautiful middle section in which extreme low and high strings provide spare harmonic background while the bassoon sings a dark melody. In its third section the music builds momentum: staccato and pizzicato passages, ominous whispering, a faltering march; the music rushes to the brink of panic, then deflates to a state of unsettled quiet. The music is often lyrical, but seldom concordant. Concordanza builds to its end with a crescendo to very discordant tremolo strings, over which we hear cymbals and then the vibraphone. The strings settle down to a murmur and we end on a brief crescendo to a single note – almost a concord. Written for chamber ensemble, this is nonetheless a powerful work; I was enthralled throughout.

Not merely does the final work have a different conductor, Bernhard Klee, it is also a work rather different from the other two. Fairytale Poem was originally written to accompany a curious 1971 radio fairytale about a sentient piece of chalk who dreams of being used to draw castles and oceans, but instead has to write boring words on a blackboard. It keeps being used in this uninspiring way, and, like all pieces of chalk, gradually becomes smaller. It knows that it will eventually be worn down to nothing, and fears it will die without ever being used to draw beautiful things. One day, all is darkness and it thinks that the end has finally come, but then the chalk sees light and realises it has in fact been in a child’s pocket. The child proceeds to use the chalk to draw glorious buildings and landscapes and the chalk is so happy it does not realise that, with these final drawings, it is dying.

Fairytale Poem is full of dramatic colour and has a strong sense of narrative. The music moves in a way unlike most of Gubaidulina’s works. There is a regular and often urgent rhythm near the beginning, representing to me the humdrum of the chalk’s life. Although the music is far from tuneful in the normal sense, it hints at folk melody in a way seldom heard in most of Gubaidulina’s works. The middle of the piece is sad and the music fades – the chalk has given in to despair. Then the rhythmic urgency returns – even more urgent than before. The notes race up and down the piano, and we hear a great swelling melody, then jagged tutti phrases come at us like enthusiastic strokes with the chalk. The music ends with a spare melody on the piano against a background of very quiet strings: the chalk has died. I did not expect to hear a work quite like this from Gubaidulina; I found it animated and delightful.

This is among the best Gubaidulina discs I have heard. The NDR Radiophilharmonie and conductors Johannes Kalitzke and Bernhard Klee make a superb case for these three excellent and different works.

Steven Watson