The Light of the End

The Light of the End [UK premiere]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Christiane Libor (soprano)
Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Studebaker (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)

Finchley Children’s Music Group
London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 20 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and first performed by it under Kurt Masur in April 2003, The Light of the End is undoubtedly one of Sofia Gubaidulina’s more dramatic pieces.

In a single movement of nearly half-an-hour’s duration, the worknevertheless has a number of well-defined sections. But the overriding feature is that of contrast; at the most obvious level there is fast versus slow music, but, amongst others, volatility versus tranquillity and lyricism as opposed to aggression. One might also add extremes of pitch and timbre, ranging from high piccolo and antique cymbals to the lowest notes possible on the tuba.

The key contrast, however, is that between ‘natural’ and ‘tempered’ tuning. The former sounding deliberately ‘out of tune’ when juxtaposed against the latter, especially when the horns bray-out sequences from the natural harmonic series.

A large orchestra is required, with an extended percussion sectionfeaturing various types of bells and other tuned instruments, and the woodwinds have visitors in the shape of the alto flute and heckelphone. The scoring is, therefore, imaginative and colourful and the composer’s resourcefulness in this area alone is impressive.

Gerard McBurney’s helpful programme note advised that The Light of the End “contains almost no extra-musical references at all”, but by choosing a title of this kind, listeners are surely invited to imagine luminescent images. Whilst there are indeed passages of some radiance, much of the time there is dark colouring, with perhaps the suggestion of light attempting to escape.

The gentle opening sonority of flute, harp and bells – which returns at the close – was initially comforting, but more disruptive elements assert themselves fairly soon. There are very often chromatic scales running upward through the orchestra; a device I thought over-used. A striking passage of triadic harmony from tuned percussion accompanied by stabbing strings lingers in thememory, as does a keening solo cello lament.

Forceful horns and other brass hint at a call-to-arms of some kind,and the overall rapidity of much of the music conveys a sense ofexhilaration, though I would part company with McBurney who describes this as “dance-like”. It was, nevertheless, the quieter music that impressed the most, and some of the phrases for solo instruments were haunting indeed. I look forward to getting to know The Light of the End in greater depth.

A pity that the restive audience – many of whom were plainly present only for the Beethoven – proved rather distracting at times, although the composer was warmly acclaimed, and seemed delighted with the performance.

Kurt Masur must have conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on countless occasions, so one was assured of a seasoned interpretation. In many ways, this was an ‘old fashioned’ performance, with doubled woodwinds and which accepted some amendments to the scoring (such as the horns in the secondmovement) which would have caused Urtext-lovers to cringe. Tempos were judicious and the orchestra (and singers) responsive.

But it was by no means the overwhelming experience it can be and, in that respect, one could argue that it was classically, rather than ‘romantically’ inclined.

There was no sense of cosmic calamity in the first movement – the dramatic recapitulation was surprisingly tame – but there was a creditable sense of unfolding symphonic thought on a big scale.

The scherzo tripped along breezily enough, but I missed a sense of danger that surely lurks not very far below the surface of this music – the timpani outbursts (which could have been more explosive) should be more alarming. The tempo relationship between scherzo and trio, however, was excellent.

Somewhat surprisingly, Masur took a rather fleet-footed approach to the sublime third movement which minimised contrasts between the ‘adagio’ and ‘andante’ sections, but there was some gorgeous string-playing and expressive wind and horn solos.

The calamitous start to the finale was well-realised, with the cello and double bass recitatives given ‘in tempo’. The ‘joy’ theme unfolded at a measured pace, as it did later on vocally, and if there was a suggestion of a lack of impetus, it could be said that this was an appropriate realisation of Beethoven’s ‘allegro assai’ indication.

The invariably indefatigable Hanno Müller-Brachmann sounded decidedly strained in his first entry, but went on to declaim Schiller’s lines to Beethoven’s immortal melody with fine phrasing, and Masur ensured that we heard the delightful counterpoint and commentary of the woodwinds.

The women soloists were both replacing indisposed artists, and the solo quartet did not sound entirely at ease with the conductor’s initial leisurely speed. In the wonderful 6/8 ‘march’, Thomas Studebaker did not have the ringing command to dominate the male chorus and orchestra; in fact he sounded rather baritonal in quality, which is not ideal for this music, and in the outburst from the full chorus one felt a distinct lack of momentum.

But Masur’s deliberation paid dividends in the end, as the ‘prestissimo’ conclusion was all the more exciting, with a phenomenal piccolo effortlessly crowning the whole.

If, finally, this was not an incandescent vision, one could admire the comparative sobriety and integrity of Masur’s thoughtful reading.

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