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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Offertorium for violin and orchestra (1980) [35:34]
Hommage T.S. Eliot for octet and soprano (1987) [33:22]
Gidon Kremer (violin)
Christine Whittlesey (soprano)
Eduard Brunner (clarinet), Radovan Vlatkovic (horn), Alois Posch (double bass), David Geringas (cello), Klaus Thunemann (bassoon), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Isabelle van Keulen (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
Rec. April 1988 at Symphony Hall, Boston, USA (Offertorium) and April 1987 at Bibliothekssaal, Polling, Austria
Texts and translations from T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ included
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 427 336-2 [68:56]

After 32 years it’s a delight to see the restoration of this legendary recording to its original packaging, which features MC Escher’s double-take inducing engraving Omhulsel – “Rind”. (DG have since reissued the disc a couple of times in deadly dull sleeves). I vividly recall acquiring it first time round. During the summer of 1989 I discovered the music of Alfred Schnittke via a couple of secondhand Melodiya LPs. I was deeply impressed and that August turned up to the Proms premiere of his Viola Concerto with Yuri Bashmet inevitably the soloist (as I remember Gergiev was scheduled to conduct the BBC Northern but was indisposed, so the versatile Mathias Bamert stepped in at short notice.) After a workaday account of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony I took a long draft from my bottle of Bud (I was in the Gods close to the bar) and settled in for the Schnittke. It proved to be an almost overwhelming experience, to the extent that I chose to leave at the interval – I really didn’t want a Tchaikovsky symphony (or anything else) to extinguish its spell. Next day I went on a tour of London classical shops (including Collet’s of course) to see what new Soviet music I could find. I picked up some Denisov and more Schnittke and a strange LP of synthesiser compositions by a range of unfamiliar Soviet names, one of whom was Sofia Gubaidulina. Her pieces seemed absolutely unlike anything I had heard to that point. A month later I acquired this disc on the day it was released. I remember being astonished to see Gubaidulina’s name on the famous yellow label.

I remember reading the booklet notes on the bus journey back from Manchester and thinking that her ‘design’ for Offertorium seemed perfect, at least on paper; elegant, architecturally sound and mathematically precise, whilst the aesthetic impulses behind the work (a joint homage to Bach and Webern, the dedication to Gidon Kremer and its serious spiritual overtones) also ticked the right boxes. I was also well aware that promising written descriptions of pieces rarely translated into music I ended up liking. On this occasion though my wariness was misplaced – Offertorium proved to be a breath of fresh (possibly incense-soused) air. It constituted my real initiation into the work of a figure whom I suspect will prove, in due course, to be the most significant ‘Russian’ composer of her time. Whilst Schnittke’s music can be frustratingly inconsistent, I think Gubaidulina’s embodies both reliability and authenticity. If Offertorium’s stature has proved resilient across three decades there are plenty of other masterpieces amongst her oeuvre - my favourite is the brooding flute concerto entitled The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair, written for the Israeli flautist Sharon Bezaly and recorded by her for BIS – it sounds like no other flute concerto I’ve ever heard.

This was the first commercially available recording of Offertorium although it isn’t actually the earliest –at its Moscow premiere in 1982 it was played by Oleg Kagan (Kremer was persona non grata in the USSR at the time) with the Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Rozdhestvensky – this performance features on Volume 31 of the Oleg Kagan Edition on Live Classics (No 1468346789598) although I suspect it’s only currently available as a download, and I have yet to hear it. I have heard Oleh Krysa’s account with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under James DePriest on BIS (BIS CD 566). The playing seems technically unimpeachable but the BIS sound seems a little arid for once; in contrast Kremer seems to completely inhabit the piece, whilst the Boston acoustic seems well-nigh ideal.

The work’s title is deliberately ambiguous – although the work serves as a homage to Bach, Webern and Kremer there is a more literal element of ‘sacrifice’ involved. The dominating motif of the piece is Bach’s renowned ‘royal theme’ from the Musical Offering, a tune especially familiar to Webernites due to the Austrian composer’s klangfarbenmelodie doused arrangement. In Gubaidulina’s initial presentation of the tune, the final D is excised in order to prise open a door of alternative possibility. In subsequent re-statements the remaining first and last notes of the theme are lopped off each time to the point where the tune becomes unrecognisable, having been ‘sacrificed’ almost by stealth. Having been thus deconstructed, during the work’s final section Gubaidulina carefully rebuilds the theme from the middle outwards, culminating in its final restatement on solo violin, albeit backwards. After the astringent outbursts that punctuate the work’s central section, the effect is rapt and unforgettable, not least due to the white-heat intensity of Kremer’s playing and Dutoit’s discreet coaxings from the Boston Orchestra of the composer’s shimmering colours. The DG recording is magnificent – the dynamic range is remarkable whilst the balance between soloist and orchestra is perfectly realised. The enormous space implied by the sonics remains palpable even after three decades. Offertorium is unquestionably one of Gubaidulina’s most gnomic yet paradoxically communicative masterpieces. It demands familiarity – in most cases listeners will need little persuasion to press the repeat button.

Although its austerity will present a challenge even to the Gubaidulina diehard, the substantial coupling, Hommage T.S. Eliot is scarcely less impressive than Offertorium; this remains is its only recording. It is performed by a stellar ensemble, an instrumental octet of string quartet, double-bass, and three wind which includes Kremer, Isabelle Van Keulen, Tabea Zimmermann among others plus the American soprano Christine Whittlesey. Three of its seven sections incorporate sung extracts from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. The long, atmospheric introduction is scored for strings alone, whilst the weird section which follows employs just the three wind instruments: clarinet, horn and bassoon. In this the hunting calls of the horn are repulsed by quirky dissonances. Whittlesey then conveys a liquid, unaccompanied account of nine lines from Burnt Norton before the strings return for a tiny, gently swinging interlude. It’s only in the fifth movement that the whole ensemble is heard together and somewhat counterintuitively the composer conjures sounds which seem painfully skeletal. Here the words are taken from the fourth part of East Coker in which Eliot likens Christ to “the wounded surgeon…..with the bleeding hands…..” (although Gubaidulina doesn’t set these particular words). The imagery and symbolism of the language are matched with music of riveting spareness which will leave the listener in no doubt that this is the spiritual heart of the sequence. A dark threnody for clarinet and string trio constitutes the penultimate movement, before an extended conclusion for the entire group which sets the section of Little Gidding in which Eliot meditates upon Julian of Norwich’s famous observation that “Sin is Behovely, but All shall be well….”. Here the music is diffuse and occasionally strident, intensity is threatened but never quite attained. The granitic conclusion approaches an austerity more often encountered in the music of Gubaidulina’s older compatriot Galina Ustvolskaya. That said, the potency of this live account from Kremer’s Lockenhaus festival is undeniable.

It is to Presto Classical’s great credit that they have chosen to restore the original version of this fine disc – it represents a historical document of singular importance; indeed I suspect it was the first issue on arguably the most famous classical label of all devoted to post-Shostakovich Soviet music. Kremer’s account of Offertorium has retained every ounce of its mystery and power.

Richard Hanlon

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