Gubaidulina orchestral 9991642
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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
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]

This is a reinstatement, with the original cover art and catalogue number but a reduced price, of a disc nearly thirty years old. It remains an excellent conspexus of Gubaidulina’s art. She was born in Christopol in Tatarstan, part of what was then the Soviet Union, of mixed Russian and Tatar parents. She studied in Kazan and Moscow and was encouraged by Shostakovich. This was the time when Russian composers were not supposed to study the music of European modernists such as Stravinsky. She nevertheless, did manage to get hold of scores and with their help developed her own style, which occasionally got her into trouble with the authorities. In 1992 she emigrated to Hamburg, where she still lives. She is a deeply religious woman and her largest work is a two part oratorio on the Passion and Resurrection according to St John (Johannes-Passion and Johannes-Ostern), which has been recorded by Helmuth Rilling. Her best known works are probably her three violin concertos, each with a title: Offertorium (review), In tempus praesens (review) – there are also other recordings of these works – and Dialog: Ich und Du (review). Her idiom is not easily described: it owes something to the twentieth century masters but she also has an exquisite ear for sonorities and her writing is deeply expressive and full of colour and variety.

Pro et Contra, the first work here, shows all these qualities. It draws on the Alleluia chant of the Orthodox church, but this theme is only gradually hinted at and progressively revealed. The work is in three movements, two shorter ones enclosing a longer one. The first movement opens with very quiet high strings, occasionally disrupted by bell sounds and glissandi. These gradually subside and the violins expound the chant theme in fragments interspersed with interuptions and arabesques. They finally settle on a long drawn-out note, after which there is a descent into the deep bass and the movement ends with a contrast between this and the high treble. In the second movement hints of the chant appear on wind instruments, but there are frequent strenuous interruptions before a cello line becomes gradually more prominent. Again there is a movement into the abyss but the violins bring back fragments of the theme. In the finale the movement is faster and interruptions to the theme get more insistent and pointed. These culminate in a passage of powerful unpitched drumming. We end with the theme on quiet strings. This is a beautiful and haunting work.

Concordanza is a shorter work, for a chamber ensemble of ten players. This comes from much earlier and it owes something to the pointilliste style developed by the Darmstadt school of the 1960s who were inspired by Webern. It is full of lovely sounds but I do not think it really coheres in the way that Pro et contra does. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating work.

The Fairytale Poem, another work of the same period as Concordanza, derives from incidental music for a radio version of a Czech fairy tale, The Little Chalk. This is a whimsical story of a piece of chalk who is sad at having always to write words, numbers and geometrical figures on a blackboard. The children grow but the piece of chalk gets smaller. However, a boy uses the chalk to draw a castle, gardens and the sea in sunlight. The chalk is happy and meets its end. Gubaidulina wrote attractive music of no great depth for this fable.

These performances sound meticulously prepared and are played with great clarity and expressive phrasing, and none of that blank brightness which can afflict performances of new music. The recording is a good digital one. The booklet, in German and English, is a bit skimpy and the English version not idiomatic, but this does not really matter. There have been other recordings of the first two works here, but this remains a valuable collection at a modest price.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Steven Watson