Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
The Lyre of Orpheus (2006) [23.40]
Gidon Kremer (violin); Marta Sudraba (cello); Kremerata Baltica
rec. Lockenhaus Festival, June 2006
The Canticle of the Sun (1997, rev. 1998) [45.26]
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello); Andrei Pushkarev; Rihards Zalupe (percussion); Rostislav Krimer (celesta); Riga Chamber Choir/Măris Sirmais
rec. Lockenhaus Festival, July 2010
ECM NEW SERIES 2256 [69.07]
These are marvellous works, dedicated to two outstanding musicians. The Canticle of the Sun is inscribed to that great ambassador of music Mstislav Rostropovich who died in 2007. The Lyre of Orpheus, which we will look at first, is addressed to Gidon Kremer that prodigious virtuoso and enthusiastic promoter of contemporary and often very challenging works. Kremer is now over 70.
Sofia Gubaidulina has established herself as an outstanding figure in European music; a natural successor to Shostakovich. When we are still living at a time when women composers are under-played and often under-valued she is one of the greatest ever of her sex.
Her notes on The Lyre of Orpheus are quite complex. She explains how the title was found. All intervals, she reminds us, pulsate, even if inaudible. By choosing a minor second and a perfect fifth she “searched for a pitch level for these intervals”. These are set out in the booklet. The three pitches discovered were D, E and A which not only contain another perfect fifth but also an inverted one. The pitches, which are the strings of Orpheus’s lyre led her to the so-called “chord of Orpheus” the Greek God of Music you might say. They form the basic intervals of the Pythagorean system. They sound together, pulsate in fact, only at three very obvious moments in the work. I have simplified her notes and concept but I trust you get the idea. The work plays without a break and beginning with a single pitch played pianissimo gradually builds, through a Shostakovitch-like broad melody at about 15:00 into a powerful climax five minutes later. Her control of a large canvas and emotional accumulation are quite extraordinary. The solo violin plays a significant role, but there is an ecstatic passage when it carouses with the solo cello, which emerges from the ensemble. At other times it coalesces with the pitched percussion, like the ‘glock’ and sometimes with unpitched instruments and even the timpani. In his brief paragraph in the booklet Kremer talks of Gubaidulina's “mystical kingdom”. After a while you will also discover it.
This also occurs with the other work: The Canticle of the Sun. The text on which it is based is supplied for us. I say ‘based’, as at only very few moments is this work really a setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous words. The chamber choir are often silent for extended periods. When they do appear they often chant only on one chord or on one note as a choir. Sometimes just a soloist is heard - a low bass, for instance, for the first verse. Around them the strings and the solo cellist weave a thread of almost random pitches, creating a radiant, heavenly but sometimes austere sound-world. This is mitigated by colour in the form of various percussion sounds but especially by the glitter of the celesta, which has a significant role. For all of its forty-five minutes this work is mostly slow and often very quiet. There are odd moments of silence and few climaxes. The music exists, as it were, in a stasis.
Gubaidulina chose this text as Rostropovich was of a character “often lit up by the sun, by sunlight, by sunny energy”. Even those of us who only heard him play and never met him will surely understand this. There are four sections which, playing without a break, have headings. For example there’s the second one ‘Glorification of the Creator, the maker of the Four Elements, Air, Water, Fire and Earth’. The cellist, after playing in various unusual ways, on the bridge of the cello for example, abandons it in favour of a bass drum and a flexatone, before returning to his cello. Ultimately he is left with just the cello’s very highest, almost inaudible notes - sounds which had also been explored in earlier sections.
These are fine and detailed live recordings from the amazing Lockenhaus Festival in Austria. This was founded by Kremer as an annual chamber music event and has been running in its present form since 1981. Especially through headphones, you can hear ‘noises off’ but at no point do they become intrusive. Indeed they are sufficient just to add to the atmosphere and tension. The booklet has three lovely pictures of the composer both as a younger woman and in later years. The text on which the ‘Canticle’ is based is also quoted in full.
No praise can be too high. This is true not only for Kremer, who plays this piece with certainty and beauty, but also for the Rostropovich substitute, as it were, Nicolas Altstaedt. His management of the often used overtones, his rich tonal quality and sense of ensemble are exemplary. The whole work is held together superbly by Măris Sirmais. The wonderfully controlled intonation of the Chamber Choir of Riga is top notch.
Gary Higginson
No praise can be too high.