CD Review


© Aart van der Wal, October 2008

Also published by MusicWeb International


Bach: Concerto for Violin, Strings and Basso continuo in A minor, BWV 1041 - in E major, BWV 1042.

Gubaidulina: Violin Concerto No 2 In tempus praesens (2006-7).

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Trondheim Soloists (Bach), London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev (Gubaidulina).

DG 4777450 • 64' •

Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto (2007) is the most fascinating gem on this disc. It is one of her latest works and reflects her most original and versatile compositional style. Its nucleus resides in crystal clear structures, whimsical waywardness and a startlingly inventive sonic spectrum. We have it all: the frightening underworld with its obscure subterranean corridors, ghostly night creatures, smoking sinter coves and distorted sierras. There is also the opposite side: the eternal serenity of a murmuring brook, the soft cushion of fluid melodies and harmonies and all packed into a great variety of contemplative layers. It grows and evolves until gradually derailed. Unforeseen roads appear, obstacles suddenly pop up, enigmas are created but are finally and confidently resolved. Images of human suffering, vivid in their almost sacred bareness, float into perspective before finally dissolving into Gubaidulina’s cosmic metaphysics. For her, contrasting elements comprise positive ingredients of form far beyond the boundaries of the twelve equally valued tones within the traditional octave. She does not feel committed to solely the major or minor third, the fourth or fifth or sixth. Instead she draws on the resources of the quarter tone to create tension and solution - the kind of model explored by Charles Ives, Krysztóf Penderecki and Alberto Ginastera. Gubaidulina thinks in terms of motions which are neither interrelated nor dependant on each other. They criss-cross without any recognition, alien structures in the hemisphere or under the surface, always limned in meticulous form. Calculated coincidence?

Much of her work contains mystical and religious sub-elements, literary references (for instance to the poetry of Marina Tsvetayeva), or the improvisatory ingredients and rituals stemming from the folk songs and their instruments from Central and East Asia. This goes back to 1975, when she founded the ‘Astreya’ ensemble, together with Victor Sushlin and Vyacheslav Artyomov. This was the impetus for accelerating a wealth of experiments in instrumental sounds and timbres from ‘another world’, sculptured from its traditional rites and obscure time elements.

This is music piled high with a variety of ambiguous abstractions, metaphorical layers, shimmering transformations and – maybe most important of all – that strikingly missing home-sweet-home feeling. These frequently leave the listener somewhere along the road between ominous darkness and enlightened serenity. The tremendous frictions between the cruel and painful accumulations in the real world and the almost transcendental guise of her deep religiosity immerse us in an incredibly expressive soundscape with all the characteristics of acoustic ecology.

Gubaidulina is neither a romantic nationalist nor a post-modern recycler of patterns and forms. The kaleidoscopic stubbornness of her ‘language’ cannot possibly entail that rather easy and comfortably sounding ‘music of the spheres’, that endlessly murmuring diatonic patchwork through which for instance her colleague Arvo Pärt, our contemporary Palestrina, still attracts large audiences. Her musical roots are in the non-conformist movement, the artists’ reactionary response to Stalin’s Socialist Music for the People doctrine, strongly influenced by Edison Denisov (1929-1996) and Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). Denisov adored mathematical formulas, which he coupled with Arnold Schönberg’s atonality and its metric complexities, before finally finding Bach’s and Anton Webern’s ‘mathematics of beauty’. Schnittke’s early stage of composing focused on serial and aleatoric models. From the seventies he developed his famous collage technique, a multiple style approach accessing the kind of musical travesty that makes his music so fascinating. What all these Russian composers had in common was the necessity to write film and theater music to pay the rent and keeping ‘their’ music for their own, as work in progress, in their spare time.

Gubaidulina summarized her musical credentials in just a few lines: “To my mind the ideal relationship to tradition and to new compositional techniques is the one in which the artist has mastered both the old and the new, though in a way which makes it seem that he is taking note of neither the one nor the other. There are composers who construct their works very consciously; I am one of those who ‘cultivate’ them. And for this reason everything I have assimilated forms as it were the roots of a tree, and the work its branches and leaves. One can indeed describe them as being new, but they are leaves nonetheless. Seen in this way they are always traditional and old. Dmitri Shostakovich and Anton Webern have had the greatest influence on my work. Although my music bears no apparent traces of it, these two composers taught me the most important lesson of all - to be myself.”

Her first Violin Concerto, subtitled ‘Offertorium’, was composed in 1980, with revisions in 1982 and 1986 and was dedicated to Gidon Kremer who took it around the world. Her new second Violin Concerto (quite a different work from the first) was in fact initiated by the late Swiss conductor and maecenas Paul Sacher (1906-1999). He asked Mutter what she would have in mind as a musical gift. It turned out to be a commissioned work to be composed by Sofia Gubaidulina. It came to the world as In tempus praesens, the latest in a long row of commissioned works by Sacher, ranging from Witold Lutoslawski’s Chain II (1985) to Wolfgang Rihm’s Violin Concerto ‘Time Chant’ (1993).

  Sofia Gubaidulina

In tempus praesens runs out of steam in a mere thirty minutes, ending in the silence of mortality. It is the kind of silence which is an integral part of the music and should have the effect of causing audiences to refrain from instant loud applause. It is the culmination of a relentlessly driving force which is consistently led by the solo violin in a supremely drafted pursuit by an orchestra shorn of its violins - to expose the contrast!. It finally resolves in that striking high tutti note that has more thrilling effect than Mahler’s famous sledge-hammer blows, or the vehemently driven religious knockouts of Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). It is all about timing and about building up that incredible tension, leaving it up to the soloist to make the most of the physical exercise that is required to make the most of the piece. I recall what Shostakovich once said: “When I look back, I only see corpses and ashes.” One might also find reminiscences of Berg’s Violin Concerto in the War Symphonies of Shostakovich. There is no warm or friendly smile here, there are no delicacies to dwell upon, it is all steel. It is as if the gates have opened into a post-apocalyptic world in motion with a frenzied incisiveness that gives this score incredible weight and zest. In this maddening desperate abyss we have to go through the various stages of lament and utter darkness, inevitably and unmistakably ending up in the ambivalence we meet so often in Gubaidulina’s music. There uncertainty or indecisiveness reigns, with nothing affirmative.

The concerto was premiered in August 2007, played by Mutter, with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, in the composer’s presence. Gubaidulina had already closely followed the preceding rehearsals. However, contrary to the tendencies of so many other composers, hardly a single note needed to be changed or a single tempo adjusted. It has always been that way: she composes at her desk knowing perfectly well how the music should sound in the real world. No conductor needs to tell her which notes or lines are playable or how it should sound. Anyone who has enjoyed the privilege to closely watch her observations during rehearsals must have been impressed by her absolutely unshakable belief in her own creations. She never compromises, her music is entirely hers and no one else’s.

This new recording shows Mutter at the very peak of her musical and technical abilities. She has been through the complex piece during a great number of rehearsals and performances, and this definitely pays off. It is compelling to hear how she thrillingly catches the thrust of the music’s rhythmic drive and the ample richness of the scoring of the solo part. The music makes for a brilliant mix of exuberant display and fully controlled structure. Cripplingly difficult transitions are simultaneously and feverishly engaged to convey the full expressive measure of this piece. Mutter easily copes with the muscular acrobatics of the composer’s string writing, and delivers crystal-clear phrasing and shaded dynamics from each and every corner. She is wonderfully supported by Gergiev and the LSO. This is all about the illumination of gloom and doom, passionately shaped with the kind of monolithic power that boils up from the music itself. It is neurotic at times, but is consistently treated in a multi-linear fashion. The virgin listener meeting Gubaidulina’s spectacular utterances for the very first time will find this extremely impressive.

Gergiev has, throughout the years one of the most important advocates of Gubaidulina’s music. He makes the most out of the scurrying rhythmic figurations within the episodic structure, the final bars curiously and abruptly arising from those long stretched chordal blocks and dense harmonic textures. The LSO’s playing is just glorious, with a strong unanimous pulse and intense characterization, bringing out the terrible beauty of Gubaidulina’s orchestral writing in one great stretch. But, as I have said, major praise must go to Mutter’s unbelievably clean and pure tone and phrasing, as she simultaneously focuses on the inward depth of this glowing piece of contemporary music. Mutter portraits the work with throbbing clarity and rarely heard harmonic vitality. She vigorously meets the score’s challenges and unfailingly catches its drama.

Pairing this work with Bach’s two violin concertos cannot be more than a bonus. The delightful light playing and masterly skilled separation of notes (Mutter is clearly using a light baroque bow to suit the purpose) reflect authenticity practice. That said, we already have this music in so many great performances, authentic or not. Gubaidulina’s Offertorium would have been a much better choice. Mutter defends her Bach by referring to Gubaidulina’s strong connections with the composer, in particular the mathematical qualities which bind his and her work. Even so, this does not change the fact that In tempus praesens is worlds apart from these two Bach concertos. I cannot banish from my mind the suspicion that lack of ample preparation and rehearsal time drove her to Bach instead. Let’s be honest: Gubaidulina’s first Violin Concerto would have been the perfect match.

The spacious recording is impeccable, clean and clear, attaining demonstration quality. A very slight criticism would be that the solo violin has been rather forwardly placed. Then again we need to realize that we simply cannot see what we hear.