Feature Review – A Journey of the Soul: The Music of Sofia Gubaidulina (Orchestral and Choral Works)

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Friday, 12 January 2007, Barbican Hall, London

“Triptych ‘Nadeyka’”


Triptych ‘Nadeyka’:

The Lyre of Orpheus [UK premiere]

The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair [UK premiere]

A Feast During the Plague [European premiere]

Gidon Kremer (violin/director)

Sharon Bezaly (flutes)

Kremerata Baltica

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Martyn Brabbins

Friday, 12 January 2007, St Giles, Cripplegate, London


The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ on the Cross


The Canticle of the Sun

Alexander Ivashkin (cello)

Richard Benjafield & Chris Brannick (percussion)

Iain Farrington (organ)


BBC Singers

Stephen Cleobury

Saturday, 13 January 2007, Barbican Hall, London

“London Symphony Orchestra”


Fairytale Poem


Partita in D minor, BWV1004 – Sarabande



Pro et Contra

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra

Michael Francis

Michail Jurowski*

Sunday, 14 January 2007, Barbican Hall, London



The Light of the End

Under the Sign of Scorpio [UK premiere]


Friedrich Lips (bayan)

Trebles from the Chapel Royal

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Mikhail Agrest

Although Sofia Gubaidulina has been a mainstay of the new music scene for over two decades, her orchestral works have only been heard sporadically in the UK – having had less a consistent exposure than those by her younger contemporary Alfred Schnittke (focus of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Barbican Weekend in 2001). So a focussed attention largely devoted to her work seemed not at all inappropriate: in the event, however, the Barbican retrospective all but confirmed earlier suspicions that, for all its evident individuality, Gubaidulina’s music is best heard in small and strategically-programmed doses.

These concentrated couple of days were as diverse in activity as recent predecessors. The composer was on hand for talks, there were showings of two films centred on her music and, most significantly, two free-stage events – before the evening concerts on Saturday and Sunday – showing the BBC Symphony’s Learning policy at its most productive. The first featured 200 amateur singers alongside members of the BBC Singers in the two-part “Swarm” project – directed by Orlando Gough and inspired by Russian Orthodox chant – whose unpredictability evoked memories of the Ives and Cage Weekends, while the second brought together over 30 accordionists in the collaborative piece “With One Accord” – directed by Tim Steiner – a heady venture such as one is unlikely to encounter elsewhere this side of the Urals.

The concerts themselves featured a broad range of Gubaidulina’s work from the last two decades and a limited representation from the quarter-century before. Unlike some of her ex-Soviet contemporaries, she has not felt compelled to rehabilitate many of her works from the 1950s and 1960s (a 1958 Symphony,
withdrawn under official pressure, remains a tantalising reference in her chronology), and there was nothing ‘from the vaults’ included here. One welcome revival was Fairytale Poem (1971) – a short but highly eventful piece remodelled from music for a children’s radio play, whose subtle deployment of the orchestra and often-telling restraint are qualities not to be taken for granted in her later work.

It is only with Offertorium (1980), the violin concerto that was written for Gidon Kremer and her first work to make a significant impact in the West, that Gubaidulina seems to have ‘come of age’ as a composer. Not least because it approaches the concerto genre from so uninhibited a perspective, it retains its immediacy far more than other such works from its era (David Blake’s Violin Concerto, anyone?): the ‘royal theme’ from Bach’s The Musical Offering being utilised less as a thematic resource than a motivic framework for structuring the often-fraught dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

From an initial ‘movement’ that gradually and ingeniously dismantles the theme across a sequence of dynamic terraces, via a lengthy cadenza, through a composite of slow movement and scherzo that regulates the discourse over longer but equally forceful spans, via a shorter but even more pungent cadenza, to a sustained ‘hymn’ that draws the antagonists into an intensely cumulatively accord – the piece remains a formal and expressive touchstone that has deepened with age. Not least when played with the flawless technique and tangible commitment of Leonidas Kavakos (whose account of the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s D minor Partita would have set the scene more effectively had applause not intervened), one of several younger violinists who have the work in their repertoire, and directed with the expertise of Michail Jurowski – one of three conductors who, stepping in at short notice to replace an indisposed Valery Gergiev, ensured the programmes went ahead with no lack of conviction.

After the interval, Michael Francis – currently a full-time double bassist with the London Symphony Orchestra and a conductor of some potential – returned for Pro et Contra (1989), a commission from the Louisville Orchestral that attracted much attention at the time, but which now seems relatively insubstantial. In particular, its lengthy central movement lacks the musical density to fulfil its role as the catalyst whereby its all too disparate predecessor is transformed into a fully cohesive finale, but instead emerges as an all-too-tepid apotheosis. The LSO clearly enjoyed getting to grips with this unfamiliar music, but one rather doubts whether the piece has a future outside of Gubaidulina retrospectives.

Two of the other evening highlights (see Rob Witts’s review for coverage of the afternoon concerts) were those involving chorus. Late-evening performances at St Giles Cripplegate are nearly always a highpoint of these Weekends, and this year’s was no exception. After a lucid and restrained account of Schütz’s “Seven Last Words”, as meaningful a rendering of this hallowed text as any that followed, Gubaidulina’s “The Canticle of the Sun” (1997) was heard to near-ideal advantage. A ritualistic yet always inherently musical treatment of St Francis’s famous verse, in which the cello soloist – here the redoubtable Alexander Ivashkin – acts as the all-round master of ceremonies, it distils a powerful and intensely inward atmosphere whose frequent ‘halos’ of harmonic resonance readily took flight in this acoustic.

Almost as absorbing was “Alleluia” (1990), a sequence of well-differentiated meditations, primarily on the work’s title, that drew contrasting sonorities of chorus and orchestra into a powerful opposition that was only reconciled by the emergence of treble voices singing a wholly different text towards the close. Again, there is an undeniable element of theatricality at work, but this does not offset the musical impact: as acute a plea for ‘unity’ (this being the era of the fall of the Iron Curtain and also the Berlin Wall) in times of volatile change as could reasonably be achieved within a nominally religious context. The BBC Symphony Chorus seemed wholehearted in its contribution, while that of the three trebles from the Chapel Royal had a poignancy that never detracted from its purely musical function.

Mikhail Agrest (replacing Gergiev) was the sympathetic conductor both here and in the first half, which proved musically less rewarding. Not so much Under the Sign of Scorpio (2003), a concerto for bayan – the Russian button-accordion that Gubaidulina has featured in several earlier works – whose harmonic material is closely derived from the instrument’s physical construction, though even here it was possible to feel that the interplay of soloist and orchestra was more than a touch schematic, while the presence of Wagner tubas added surprisingly little in terms of sonority and texture.

Welcome, though, was the chance to hear Friedrich Lips, the bayan’s leading practitioner and a long-term collaborator with the composer, in full flight – teasing out those nuances of phrasing such as only a master of this singular instrument could hope to achieve.

In any case, the work left a more positive impression than did The Light of the End (2003), an orchestral ‘rhapsody’ in which Gubaidulina’s predilection for an expansive orchestral line-up crosses over into indulgence, and whose interplay of ‘natural’ and ‘equal’ tunings sounds superficial compared to what has been achieved in this area by numerous other composers.

Sadly, the overall impression of the ‘Nadeyka’ Triptych (a tribute to Gubaidulina’s deceased daughter) in the opening concert was scarcely more positive. At least the central part, The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair (2005) had sufficient musical substance to maintain interest, with flute virtuoso Sharon Bezaly switching adroitly (albeit via some half-hearted choreographic gestures) between the three flutes whose greatly extended compass enables the composer to open-out the orchestral textures in intriguing and unexpected ways. Rhythmically, too, the piece is among her most resourceful – allowing an animated and capricious interplay that goes some way to underlining Gubaidulina’s stated intention of exploring fresh possibilities within the concerto format.

It was preceded The Lyre of Orpheus (2006), a ‘chamber concerto’ for violin, strings and percussion that treats its range of intervals rather as gestures made visual by the claustrophobic arraignment of musicians on the platform, but whose underlying scenario yet failed to motivate the music in any more positive sense. Gidon Kremer and the members of Kremerata Baltica made the most of its slim attractions in what was a welcome if, regrettably, singular appearance by this fine ensemble at the start of the weekend.

However, it was A Feast During the Plague (2005) that proved the biggest disappointment. Inspired by Pushkin’s bitingly satiric – and continually relevant – ‘little tragedy’, this half-hour ‘concerto for orchestra’ initially consisted of climactic advances and retreats derived from a not overly arresting fanfare heard at the outset (and whose gradual unfolding was accurately if laboriously described in Paul Griffiths’s programme note – Gubaidulina’s music being not especially amenable to this degree of descriptive analysis), before a rhetorical climax brought forth what to all intents and purposes was a ‘techno sample’ of the most rudimentary kind.

This is superimposed on the music as it gradually winds down to a conclusion that is cathartic in intent if not effect. In terms of substance, moreover, the piece offered little other than a gloss on those before it, with the use of the sample as clumsy as can be imagined from a composer of this standing. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra ensured unsparing impact, but it was hard not to think that this was a commission squandered.

At least this nadir of the Weekend emerged early, but the overriding impression has been that Gubaidulina – as with Schnittke and, more recently, Kancheli – has not always used her abundant orchestral commissions to best advantage. Whether through uncertainty of aim or mere pressure of deadlines, few of the works from the last fifteen years that were performed can match her earlier achievements in terms of expressive potency and compositional resource. This suggests that Gubaidulina’s longer-term reputation will likely centre on past rather than future achievements: a pity when the composer, now 75 and seemingly in robust health, could have over a decade’s creativity before her. A period of ‘taking stock’ may well be the best option in the run-up to her 80th-birthday.

This Gubaidulina Weekend was the twentieth such January event mounted by the BBC at the Barbican, and which has become a welcome fixture near the beginning of the year. At the time of writing, future such weekends have not yet been announced, but the BBC should certainly consider focussing on some of those composers from earlier in the twentieth-century who have the potential to reach a wide audience. Enescu and Suk spring readily to mind among those whose music calls for the outlay and rehearsal-demands that an organisation such as the BBC is equipped to provide, and has indeed provided over the course of previous and rewarding ‘composer weekends’.

  • BBCSO/Agrest concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16 January; previously broadcast events available on ‘Listen Again’ through BBC Radio 3 website
  • BBC Radio 3
  • LSO

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