Feature Review – A Journey of the Soul: The Music of Sofia Gubaidulina (String Quartets & Hour of the Soul)

Written by: Rob Witts

Saturday, 13 January 2007, St Giles Cripplegate, London

“The Complete String Quartets – 1”


String Quartet No.2


String Quartet in G, Op.77/1


String Quartet No.1

Royal String Quartet [Isabella Szalaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybylowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michal Pepol (cello)]

Sunday, 14 January 2007, St Giles Cripplegate, London

“The Complete String Quartets – 2”


String Quartet No.3


String Quartet in G minor, Op.74/3 (The Rider)


String Quartet No.4

Royal String Quartet [Isabella Szalaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybylowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michal Pepol (cello)]

Sunday, 14 January 2007, Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London



Hour of the Soul

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra

Guildhall Wind Ensemble

Mikhail Agrest

Sofia Gubaidulina (born in 1931) is the first woman to be featured in 20 years of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s January composer-portrait weekends.

She is an excellent choice: her musical vision is explicitly transcendental, but offers no simple answers. There is none of the consoling mysticism of John Tavener, or the formulaic, aggressive piety of James Macmillan (both, incidentally, the focus of previous weekends), but instead a quiet determination to seek the spiritual in the often-harsh reality of life.

She is also a composer of wonderful craft and invention, with a soundworld that is entirely her own, as was borne out by these three concerts from the Weekend.

The four string quartets, composed over a span of 22 years, do not represent a stylistic evolution; rather, each work explores questions of musical symbolism from a different, highly individual perspective. Two recitals by the Royal String Quartet afforded an illuminating overview, revealingly juxtaposed with two late quartets by Haydn (the pairing chosen by Gubaidulina).

Illumination pervades Gubaidulina’s string writing, much of which takes place in the silvery upper register of ‘harmonic’ notes. These are used to pierce textures, like darting shafts of light, or to form ethereal, crystalline chords.

In the Second Quartet, the harmonic realm represents heaven, contrasting with the earthbound solidity and earthiness of conventional timbre. (All four quartets explore the sounds of which stringed instruments are capable.) In the Second, this is in the context of a journey from a unison G bowed and plucked, to a glistening chorale in harmonics.

The Third appears at first a thoroughly modernist interrogation of timbre; at its opening the players are restricted to pizzicato on open strings, and slowly develop more complex ways of making sound. The arrival of the first bowed violin note is startling, and leads to ravishing chordal textures.

The Fourth extends this tendency further still by juxtaposing the live quartet with two such groups pre-recorded on tape, tuned a quarter-tone apart. This surrounds the players with a disquieting web of sound, produced by the novel means of a rubber ball on a handle, bounced along the string – the effect is of a ghostly balalaika, and provides the backdrop for the live quartet’s exploration of their own material.

It was good to hear the two Haydn quartets in this company, making their familiar idiom sound strange and novel. The Royal Quartet’s performance emphasised the importance of texture; the solemn Adagio second movement of Opus 77/Number 1 was revealed as a study in tone colour, from the spare, noble octaves in which the theme is first heard through to the rich closing chorale. The moment of still introversion in the development of the otherwise outgoing first movement shone with quiet meaning; this was the spiritual Haydn of the ‘Seven Last Words’ rather than the urbane Enlightenment figure, though the readings had plenty of wit and poise.

To LSO St Luke’s, where a concert by Guildhall ensembles showcased two very different works. Both performances were outstanding. The reliably astonishing Nicolas Hodges joined chamber orchestral forces for Introitus, a musical dramatisation of spiritual communion, in which orchestra and soloist begin separately, but merge tentatively in music of austere beauty.

A different side to Gubaidulina’s character was displayed in “Hour of the Soul”, a setting of poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva for large wind orchestra and soloist. The short verse, written in a rare period of stability in Tsvetaeva’s tragic life, hymns spiritual independence; Gubaidulina’s music makes clear the terrible cost of such an effort of will. It begins with glowering bass chords, rising to a terrible climax, the first of several; there follow passages of textural writing, unsettled and wide-ranging melodies, and snatches of jaunty tunes that are heard over more ominous harmonic motion. The soloist does not enter until the end of the work; here Ekaterina Semenchuk was tremendous, channelling fearsome sadness and defiance with total conviction.

  • Gubaidulina concerts broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30 p.m. on Monday 15 January and Tuesday 16 January; previously broadcast events available on ‘Listen Again’ through BBC Radio 3 website
  • BBC Radio 3
  • GSMD

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