Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Jauchzt vor Gott for mixed choir and organ (1989) [8:45]
Hell und dunkel for organ solo (1976) [11:00]
Sonnengesang (Canticle of the Sun) for cello, chamber choir, and percussion (1997/98) [41:06]
Christian Schmitt (organ)
Ivan Monighetti (cello)
North German Radio Choir/Philipp Ahmann
rec. 23-24 October 2012, Hauptkirche St. Nikolai am Klosterstern, Hamburg (Jauchzet vor Gott), 16 November 2011, Kulturkirche, Altona, Hamburg (Hell und dunkel), 30 October 2011, Rolf-Liebermann-Studio, Hamburg, Germany (Sonnengesang)
Texts in Italian (Sonnengesang), German (Jauchzt vor Gott), and English translations included
BIS BIS-2276 SACD [61:50]
The primary attraction of this disc for most listeners would probably be Canticle of the Sun, one of Gubaidulina’s best-known works and one that has received at least four other recordings to my knowledge. Gubaidulina composed the work for Mstislav Rostropovich, whose account with the London Symphony on EMI/Warner is undoubtedly authoritative. That has not discouraged other cellists from taking it up, including Nicolas Altstaedt with Kremerata Baltica (ECM), David Geringas and the Danish National forces (Chandos), and Pieter Wispelwey with Collegium Vocale Gent (Channel Classics). All of these accounts have been well received and this new one can easily join this illustrious group. This is the first time I have seen the title of the work in German. I assume it is the language used by Gubaidulina, since she emigrated to Germany before she composed the piece. Of course, the text is Umbrian Italian and based on St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun or Praise of the Creatures (Laudes creaturarum). The composition is in four continuous sections: glorification of the Creator and his creations — the sun and moon; glorification of the Creator of the four elements — air, water, fire, and earth; glorification of life; and glorification of death. Unfortunately, this recording has only a single track for the whole work, whereas the other recordings have multiple tracks that are very useful in separating the sections of the piece.
Compared with Gubaidulina’s violin concertos, Offertorium and In tempus praesens, or especially the concerto Glorious Percussion, the Canticle is for much of the time a quieter and more restrained work. As in virtually all of her music there is a religious basis, which is particularly pertinent here. Since the piece was composed for Rostropovich, the cellist gets the starring role, with the chamber choir and percussion as commentators, and even becomes a percussionist himself. The large array of percussion, especially that with bell-like sounds, is amazing. Helmut Peters, in his perceptive discussion in the disc’s booklet, notes the importance of the marimba in this music, but there are other instruments such as the celesta, bells, and water glasses (played by the musicians’ rubbing moistened fingers around the rims of the glasses) that add to the celestial effect of the music. Peters does mention, though, the role of the cellist as percussionist. At one point, the cellist “abandons his instrument completely, strikes the edge of the fingerboard with a wooden mallet or produces glissandi with a double bass bow on a flexatone,” as he moves about the stage. He also makes an eerie sound by sliding his hand over the skin of a bass drum. In many respects the Canticle is a theatre piece and requires the visual aspect for total enjoyment. There are a few Youtube videos that help in this respect. This new recording, or rather newly released — it was recorded as long ago as 2012 — has a natural perspective with cellist Ivan Monighetti upfront and the choir and percussion behind. While one can fully appreciate the cellist and choir, there are times when the percussion could be a bit clearer. As the other recordings of the Canticle of the Sun seem very good, based on the bits of them I’ve heard, the interest in this new account will more likely be determined by its couplings.
The briefest work on the disc, Jauchzt vor Gott (“Make a joyful noise unto God”) is a world première recording. Despite its short duration, this is an impressive piece that makes quite an impact. The text is that of Psalm 66, Verses 1-2 and 4. Gubaidulina was inspired to compose Jauchzt vor Gott by violinist Gidon Kremer, for whom she wrote her first violin concerto, Offertorium. The work contrasts the linear vocal writing for the choir with the organ’s vertical, block chords. The choir begins the piece with a melodic line on the syllable “Ja” that is reminiscent of medieval psalmodic singing. The organ enters later with powerful, dark, and dissonant blocks of sound. The contrast between the light of the choir and dark of the organ continues throughout, with the choir singing some of its highest pitches and the organ rumbling underneath as the work ends. I cannot imagine a better performance than that given here by the NDR Choir and organist Christian Schmitt.
The third work, Hell und dunkel, is for solo organ and, as indicated by its title, also contrasts light and darkness. Here the upper register of the organ understandably represents “light,” whereas the organ’s low, pedal notes, “dark.” At one point the roles are reversed, with the treble harmony in chords and the bass notes in runs. I found the piece interesting, if a bit long for its material — unlike the other works on the disc.
I have no hesitation in recommending this SACD for those wanting this particular programme. The performances are all excellent and the sound is very good, too, even in the two channels in which I auditioned the recording. If your primary interest is the Canticle of the Sun, though, there are other worthy choices you may wish to consider.