Album review: Celebrating Gubaidulina with Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester

In conjunction with Sofia Gubaidulina’s two-season residency with the Gewandhausorchester, Deutsche Grammophon has put out a terrific portrait album, coinciding with the composer’s ninetieth birthday. Conducted by Andris Nelsons, three works are featured on the new CD, each scored for an extended orchestral line-up of triple, quadruple and, occasionally, quintuple winds and brass, full strings and variety of percussion, pitched and unpitched, to create a vast expressive scale, in terms of both dynamics and colour.

The disc sets off with Dialogue: I and You (2018), Gubaidulina’s third violin concerto. Written for Vadim Repin, the concerto is cast in single twenty-minute movement, yielding to a dramatic episode of riveting acuteness. Following Offertorium (1980/1982/1986) and In tempus praesens (2007), her take on the medium is inspired by existential philosopher Martin Buber’s observations on the duality of human nature and how sense and truth should be employed to defeat the dark, irrational side.

As suggested by its title, the overall dramaturgy is built upon a multi-layered dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra; the sounding embodiment of the sensitive and the irrational. The score opens with a series of back-and-forth statements between the soloist and the percussion section, summoning the sonic ritual into being. As the scenery unravels, other orchestral instruments join, in diverse instrumental groups, engaging the soloist into a series of interactions, with mounting intensity.

The orchestral material grows ever more volatile, but each time the turbulent textures are soothed by the unwavering calmness of the solo violin. Gubaidulina’s setting reminds, somewhat, that of the Scheherazade and the Men with Beards third movement from John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 (2014) for violin and orchestra.

Culminating in overlapping, long-held tones from the soloist and the orchestra, Dialogue: I and You concludes with a single, scintillating violin drone, hovering high above the orchestral silence. Evaporating into the hall ambiance, the concerto establishes profound tranquility, which carries over for hours, even days, in the listener’s mind and body.

A deeply moving performance from Repin, the orchestra and Nelsons, Dialogue: I and You comes off with prayer-like intensity and subtlety upon its disc premiere. The solo part is well taken care of by Repin, rooted in focused musicianship and dedication. With Nelsons at the helm, the multi-faceted orchestral textures are sounded out with care and commitment, yielding to reflective teamwork between the Gewandhaus musicians and their soloist. A substantial premiere of a substantial score, Dialogue: I and You introduces the disc with captivating momentum.

The centerpiece of the album, The Wrath of God (2019), lives up to its name, constituting a tremendous, single-movement burst of orchestral vehemence. Dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven, the music is built around recurring, ominous brass heralds, which build up to earth-shaking tutti sections of remarkable fortitude, with sardonic interludes. Intensifying upon each iteration, the score keeps the listener nailed to the edge of the seat from its opening summons to the final double-bar.

Gubaidulina’s awe-inspiring orchestral tableau yields to a shattering meditation on the wrath of the divine, combining the apocalyptic and the majestic into the most powerful musical statement. The eighteen-minute score incorporates certain gestures from its dedicatee, while obtaining an almost cinematic narrative; one clad in solemn orchestral raiments.

The gripping intensity of the score is rooted in its enthralling sounding dramaturgy. The music is notably loud, at times, yet Gubaidulina’s massed sonics are not an end in themselves, but an inevitable outcome of the orchestral narrative. Gorgeously realized by Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester, The Wrath of God is given a superlative world premiere recording, abundant with instrumental colour and sheer orchestral force.

In the course of the mighty eighteen-minute meditation, images of the looming apocalypse are awaken in the manner of an Oliver Messiaen score, while Gubaidulina’s music remains ever true to her sonic roots. An orchestral work unlike anything heard in a good while, The Wrath of God is a commanding masterpiece.

The disc concludes with a spellbinding performance of The Light of the End (2003) for large orchestra. According to the composer, the title is derived from the bright sound of the antique cymbals that bring the music to its close. The twenty-five minute score is build upon the instrumental conflict between the sounds of the natural overtone row and the necessity of adapting them to the sounds of the twelve-tone tempered tuning.

”For some time I have experienced this conflict as my own drama: the incompatibility, in principle, of these intrinsic qualities with real-life circumstances in which nature is neutralized. Sooner or later, this pain had to be manifested in some composition. The conflict in this piece arises between a theme consisting exclusively of sounds from the natural overtone row and a theme that uses the 12-tone tempered scale. The piece concludes with the removal of a dissonance in which the contrasts are resolved”, Gubaidulina writes in her program note.

From this core conflict, an orchestral drama of astonishing vividness is summoned. Although the orchestral narrative is an inherently musical one, the listener’s mind may suggest several extra-musical connotations between the sounding material and various real-life juxtapositions. In any case, The Light of the End makes a powerful impact, especially when performed with such detailed care and dramatic intensity as the Gewandhaus under Nelsons.

The musical fabric is unveiled with an admirable combination of harmonic translucence and sonic depth, yielding to a haunting drama, conceived in orchestral sounds. Out of the vast instrumental forces at play, Gubaidulina draws colours, harmonies and textures of dazzling invention, resulting in orchestral enchantment of extraordinary thrill and almost tangible vitality.

An exquisite album altogether, the DG disc is beautifully engineered, with the post-production serving the top-class performances well indeed. A release not to be missed, the CD is a notable addition to both the Gubaidulina discography and the recorded legacy of the Gewandhaus under Nelsons.

Gewandhausorchester

Andris Nelsons, conductor

Vadim Repin, violin

Sofia Gubaidulina: Dialogue: I and You (2018) – Concerto No. 3 for violin and orchestra

Sofia Gubaidulina: The Wrath of God (2019) for orchestra

Sofia Gubaidulina: The Light of the End (2003) for large orchestra

Recorded at Leipzig Gewandhaus on December 2019 (Dialogue), May 2021 (The Wrath of God) and June 2021 (The Light of the End)

Deutsche Grammophon DG 4861457 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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