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CD Review

Sofia Gubaidulina

ATP 023-24

Misterioso

  • Jubilatio for 4 Percussionists 6
  • In the beginning there was rhythm for 7 Percussionists 6
  • Pari e dispari for 7 Percussionists & Harpsichord 6,9
  • Misterioso for 7 Percussionists 6
  • Detto I sonata for Organ & Percussion 1,6,11
  • Quasi Hoquetus for Viola, Double Bass & Piano 4,7,8
  • Five Études for Harp, Double Bass & Percussion 2,4,6
  • Ritorno perpetuo for Harpsichord 9
  • Toccata-Troncata for Piano 7
  • Invention for Piano 7
  • Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten for Flute, Viola, Harp & Speaker 2,5,8,10
1 Edy Bodecchi, organ
2 Lucia Bova, harp
3 Antonio Caggiano, percussion
4 Massimo Ceccarelli, double bass
5 Philippe Daverio, speaker
6 I percussionisti dell'Istituto Pietro Mascagni di Livorno/Jonathan Faralli
7 Maurizio Paciariello, piano
8 Luca Sanzò, viola
9 Chiara Tiboni, harpsichord
10 Manuel Zurria, flute
11 Jonathan Faralli, percussion soloist
Atopos ATP 023-24

Here is a superb and varied group of recordings (nearly a dozen works on two CDs) by Sofia Gubaidulina, who was born in 1931 in Chistopol, Russia, from the ever-enterprising Italian label, Atopos. Three of them (Jubilatio [CD.1 tr.1], Pari e dispari [CD.1 tr.3] and Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten [CD.2 tr.10]) are world première recordings. From the start of Jubilatio you know that you are in Gubaidulina's pared down, focused and sardonic world.

The works on these two CDs date from as early as 1965 (the Études) to Ritorno perpetuo, which was written in 1997. So this music reflects the period after Gubaidulina had finished studying composition (with Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin in Moscow) until not long after she moved to live near Hamburg in 1992. By and large, CD 1 has percussion instruments front and center. Percussion is the leading moving force. But it's (almost) always tuned and melodically-inspired percussion. The seven players in Misterioso [CD.1. tr.4], for instance, are clearly working to melodic, not purely sonic, ends. And all the players understand this. Potential virtuosity is secondary to their wish to project the integrity of Gubaidulina's conception. She is leading us places, not impressing us.

Nor is anything in her writing eccentric; as is evident when listening to the successful combination of timbres in the sonata for organ and percussion Detto I [CD.1 tr.5]. This adds conductor/director Jonathan Faralli as percussion soloist to organist Edy Bodecchi as well as Samuel Baldi, Tommaso Ferrieri Caputi, Giacomo Putrino, Mario Lai, Matteo Lenzi, Fabio Macchiavelli, Giacomo Cirinei, who make up I percussionisti dell'Istituto Pietro Mascagni di Livorno and form the backbone of much of the rest of the CDs. The bells fit well with the organ, as might be expected. But timps and even cymbals are an unlikely juxtaposition. Yet the organ seems to yield its expected dominance for the thrust which so often distinguishes Gubaidulina's work to be effective. In other words, this piece is typical of the composer's success in writing music where sonorities converge and form a sum which is greater than our conventional expectations of percussion instruments's parts.

The second CD is, if anything, even more concerned with the way in which writing for percussion can be additive, and unifying; as opposed to aggressively stark or relying on either technique-driven motifs or even "inflammatory assault" for its impact. The music challenges us with just as much determination. Though never aggressively. We are listening to music; not sonic concepts. It's music that exists to be played; not discussed. Yet it is cerebral in a clever but never sly way. Its invitations are all genuine. And the players – in their various unconventional combinations – unconsciously (or maybe consciously: there is too much nuance and ambivalence in Gubaidulina's motives for us to know for sure) invite us to understand her world by relying on musical conventions with which we are familiar: the crescendo, the change in tempo, the use of purposeful phrasing regardless of the original combinations and contrasts of timbre and texture.

The composer's music – for all its air of exploration and at times even of tentativeness – always knows where it's going. Listen to the tempi which build in Pari e dispari [CD.1 tr.3], for instance. It's neither plain crescendo for its own sake. Nor aimless variations in effect. The performers here bring a dimension to the unfolding of the work which articulates both those changes in dynamic as well as a unity of texture. This is also a summation by Gubaidulina of separate, discrete units of sound and rhythm. More than cells; but never overblown lines, which could run the risk of sounding as though half-wrought, merely for spectacle.

At the same time, it should be remembered that the CDs's title is Misterioso. In addition to being the title of one of the works, something hidden – or at the very least concealed or not immediately what it seems – is implied. This is one of Gubaidulina's key characteristics. She never needs to shout or labor a point. Inference is stronger than demonstration for her. Such an apparently unassuming work as the Quasi Hoquetus for viola, double bass and piano [CD.2 tr.1] uses those three solo instruments to suggest a scene of great richness. On the surface this may be because the intention is to hint at the jerkiness of the mediaeval "hocket" technique, where rests co-inside with notes. Or because the wide range of registers from double bass to piano leaves gaps into which the mind can place its own material. This is rarely the case, however. Rather, these musicians play with an enthusiasm and agility that more nearly evokes how we extrapolate the likely substance of an entire rich oil painting when only a small quadrant thereof is exposed and visible.

Indeed, enthusiasm and a sense of adventure are hallmarks of all the performers throughout the two and a third hours of music on offer. They play with freshness and a complete lack of sententiousness which is as compelling as it is perhaps unexpected. For her aficionados, Gubaidulina needs no advocacy. Thus, the approach taken here by these musicians is that this deserves to be established music (even though it is new and not widely played) because of its innate strengths. These also include dignity, and an intimacy which relies on an analogous gravitas for its effect. Intensity, of course; and a sense not so much that her work can save us from, or even ameliorate, the horrors of the world (like much twentieth and twenty-first century Russian music); but that is written on top of those horrors and can outlast them if we believe it can.

So such concentrated works as the Études [CD.2 tr.s 2-6] with their fragmentation and quizzical, at times nearly playful, rhythmic novelty invite detachment in a wistful – almost regretful – way. Listen to Gubaidulina's use of movement: the jumping and bouncing interplay of almost miniature clusters and cells in the first, Largo; and the jazzy second allegretto. The same goes for Ritorno perpetuo [CD.2 tr.7], where the composer seems almost to be highlighting the disconnect between the expected, the ostensibly conventional and the novel. Gubaidulina seems to be inviting us to "Take it or leave it" but advises that we had better know what the consequences of our decision are. And, once more, the performers bring just the right lightness of touch to their execution, without ever minimizing or trivialising the content.

The dry and close acoustic of the recordings serves to emphasize their intensity. Miking is for the most part close with much less a sense of a staged performance than as a group of musicians intently offering this vivid and penetrating music. There is audience applause after Detto I [CD.1 tr.5] The CD's booklet is somewhat lacking in detail and printed in a relatively small font. This should not put you off, though. This is a CD to be snapped up by enthusiasts of Gubaidulina; indeed by anyone at all interested in established composers of her ilk. In the current catalog there appear to be three other recordings, only, of Toccata-troncata; two of Invention for Piano; and on Neos 11106 of Quasi Hoquetus, the Five Études. This CD is highly recommended.

Copyright © 2017, Mark Sealey

Trumpet