January 2022 recording: Sofia Gubaidulina: Orchestral Works

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Sofia Gubaidulina: Dialogue: Ich und Du; The wrath of god; The light of the end

Vadim Repin, violin; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, dir.
Deutsche Grammophon 4861457 (auditioned as 24/96 WAV). 2021. Everett Porter, Bernhard Güttler, production; Porter, Sebastian Nattkemper, Benedikt Schröder, ing.
Performance *****
Sounds *****

At 90, Sofia Gubaidulina has honed her musical language amidst conflict. Since 2003, the deeply religious, visionary and visceral Russian composer has written three enormous and premonitory works that portray in musical terms a dead end between God and humanity. All receive their world premieres “live” recordings in this sensational and demanding outpouring of Andris Nelsons’ system and the venerable orchestra Felix Mendelssohn once conducted, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

Gubaidulina, whom Nelsons named Gewandhaus Composer-in-Residence until 2022, has worked with the conductor since he and the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered his Triple Concerto in 2017. The opening work of the recording is Gubaidulina’s third violin concerto, Dialogue: me and you?? and his tour de force for large orchestra, The wrath of god, was inspired by his oratorio, On love and hate. According to the sleeve notes written by Tobias Niederschlag, the oratorio “constitutes Sofia Gubaidulina’s call to mankind to follow the commandments of God and overcome hatred with the reconciling power of love”.

Dialogue: me and you was written for violinist Vadim Repin, who premiered the work in Novosibirsk in 2018 before presenting its German premiere with Nelsons at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig in December 2019. The only little thing about the 11-part violin concerto, including the title recalls that of the philosopher Martin Buber treated Ich und Du, it is the size of the violin that struggles to assert its voice.

Shortly after Repin’s violin strikes its first plaintive notes, thunderous percussion detonates its overwhelming response. As we catch our breath, the violin struggles to assert its voice, only to be knocked down again and again. In part 5, it feels like the violin’s voice can be completely crushed. Then all hell breaks loose, and mankind seems to be crying out for salvation. The assault is intense, as the soloist and the sound system struggle to keep their composure. To the extent that music can prophesy the future, the outlook is not good.

by Gubaidulina The wrath of god received its pandemic-delayed premiere at an empty Vienna Musikverein in November 2020, six months before this recording was made. “God is wrathful,” Gubaidulina said of the pre-performance work. “He is angry with people and our behavior. We have imposed ourselves.” An intensely visceral representation of the Day of Judgment, the work begins with enormous menacing brass. Amid cacophonous cries and thunderous percussions, Gubaidulina takes Shostakovich’s horror representations into the present. The wrath of god is breathtaking, with quieter passages that sound like calm before the final storm. (Don’t miss the enormous collective inspiration of the Wind Players at the start of Part 5.) Subsequent alarming outpourings shake the speakers and the front listener ?? in a dedicated work “To the great Beethoven” ?? a final passage recalls to the monumental achievements of the master at the end of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The light of the end received its world premiere at the Boston Symphony Hall in 2003 under the direction of Kurt Masur, who was formerly the principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Niederschlag claims that the title of the work refers to the optimism of a dazzling finale in which harp, triangle and all manner of treble instruments reflect the musical equivalent of light ?? but I mean the ending as less a ray of hope than a reflection of salvation which only arrives in the hereafter; Gubaidulina’s summation of the work as “the irreconciliation of nature and real life” does not contradict this interpretation. Certainly, the utter agitation of its opening suggests ultimate conflict.

Parts of this artwork and others are beautiful even when they sound like the world is falling apart. It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving the sonic apocalypses of Gubaidulina; it’s also impossible not to thank for the beauty of her unwavering voice.

The recording presents a supreme test for the electronics and acoustics of the room. From a huge tuba snapping as low as a tuba can slam to the violin, triangle and more skyward, all audible frequencies are displayed. Although I doubt these pieces will replace the favorite orchestral blockbusters ?? Night on the Bald Mountain; Ravel’s orchestration of “The Great Gate of Kiev” by Pictures of an exhibition; and the choral endings of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” ?? Gubaidulina has composed some of the most powerful and forward-looking music of our time. To experience the sound of genius at the service of humanity, look no further. ??Jason Victor Serinus


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