Recording of January 2022: Sofia Gubaidulina: Orchestral Works

Sofia Gubaidulina: Dialog: Ich und Du; The Wrath of God; The Light of the End
Vadim Repin, violin; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, cond.
Deutsche Grammophon 4861457 (auditioned as 24/96 WAV). 2021. Everett Porter, Bernhard Güttler, prods.; Porter, Sebastian Nattkemper, Benedikt Schröder, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

At 90 years of age, Sofia Gubaidulina has honed her musical language amidst conflict. Since 2003, the profoundly religious, visionary, and visceral Russian composer has written three huge, prescient works that depict in musical terms a standoff between God and humankind. All receive their world premiere "live" recordings in this sensational-sounding, system-demanding outpouring from Andris Nelsons and the venerable orchestra that Felix Mendelssohn once led, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

Gubaidulina, whom Nelsons appointed Gewandhaus's composer-in-residence through 2022, has been working with the conductor since he and the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered her Triple Concerto in 2017. Both the recording's opening work—Gubaidulina's third violin concerto, Dialogue: I and You—and its tour de force companion for huge orchestra, The Wrath of God, received inspiration from her oratorio, On Love and Hatred. According to the liner notes written by Tobias Niederschlag, the oratorio "constitutes Sofia Gubaidulina's appeal to humankind to follow God's commandments and to overcome hatred through the conciliatory power of love."

Dialogue: I and You was written for violinist Vadim Repin, who premiered the work in Novosibirsk in 2018 before presenting its German premiere with Nelsons in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in December 2019. The only thing small about the 11-part violin concerto, whose title harks back to philosopher Martin Buber's treatise Ich und Du, is the size of the violin that struggles to assert its voice.

Shortly after Repin's violin sounds its first plaintive notes, thunderous percussion booms its overwhelming reply. As we catch our breath, the violin struggles to assert its voice, only to get beaten down again and again. In Part 5, it feels as though the violin's voice may be crushed entirely. Then all hell breaks loose, and humankind seems to cry out for salvation. The onslaught is intense, as soloist and sound system struggle to maintain composure. To the extent that music can prophesize the future, the outlook is not good.

Gubaidulina's The Wrath of God received its pandemic-delayed premiere in an empty Vienna Musikverein in November 2020, six months before this recording was set down. "God is wrathful," Gubaidulina said of the work before the performance. "He's angry with people and our behavior. We've brought this down on ourselves." An intensely visceral depiction of the Day of Judgment, the work begins with huge, ominous brass. Amidst cacophonous screams and thunderous percussion, Gubaidulina takes Shostakovich's depictions of horror one step into the present. The Wrath of God is breathtaking, with quieter passages that sound like the calm before the final storm. (Don't miss the huge collective in-breath of the wind players at the start of part 5.) Subsequent alarming outpourings shake speakers and listener before—in a work dedicated "To the Great Beethoven"—a final passage harks back to the late-18th/19th century master's monumental achievements.

The Light of the End received its world premiere in Boston Symphony Hall in 2003 under Kurt Masur, who was once principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Niederschlag claims that the work's title refers to the optimism of a dazzling finale in which harp, triangle, and all manner of high-pitched instruments reflect the musical equivalent of light—but I hear the ending as less a ray of hope than a reflection of salvation that arrives only in the afterlife; Gubaidulina's summation of the work as the "irreconcilability of nature and real life" does not contradict this interpretation. Certainly its opening's utter turmoil suggests ultimate conflict.

Some parts of this and the other works are gorgeous even when they sound as if the world is caving in. It's hard to imagine anyone surviving Gubaidulina's sonic apocalypses; it's also impossible not to give thanks for the beauty in her unflinching voice.

The recording presents a supreme test for electronics and room acoustics. From a huge tuba blatting as low as a tuba can blatt to violin, triangle, and more soaring to the heavens, every audible frequency is on display. While I doubt these pieces will replace favorite orchestral blockbusters—Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain; Ravel's orchestration of "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Pictures at an Exhibition; and the choral endings of Beethoven's Ninth and Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand"—Gubaidulina has composed some of the most powerful and forward-looking music of our day. To experience the sound of genius put to the service of humanity, look no further.—Jason Victor Serinus

thethanimal's picture

Truer words have not been spoken. I stopped after the first two pieces tonight before my godson came downstairs looking for the intruder who broke the door in or the neighbors called the police. Time to play a little Tool lullaby music to transition to bed.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Lovers of heavy metal who don't demand an insistent beat and are willing to (a) listen to music whose dynamic levels are less compressed (b) deal with unpredictability may find a friend in this music.

I urge you, when another day comes, to listen to the final composition. You may find it the best of the three.

thethanimal's picture

And for all of those same reasons you my find a friend in Tool’s music ;-) I’ll buy you a beer next time you’re in Atlanta if you can tell me the time signature for “Pneuma” off their latest album.

I do fully intend on having a date with the third piece soon; I seriously stopped listening only because I didn’t want to wake the godson. In the end I went with the last half of Kim André Arnesen’s “Magnificat” performed by Trondheimsolistene and Nidarosdomens Jentekor (2L, Tidal MQA) as my lullaby. The fourth movement, “Et misericordia”, is a sublimely liminal mediation for Advent. The whole work is good, but that movement moved me to chill bumps and tears the first time I heard it.

thethanimal's picture

I had a moment this morning with the house to myself after a system upgrade last night, so it felt like a good time to finish my listen to this album. I loved it. What a journey. What an ending. A glimmer of hope that rises above the chaos. Thank you, Jason.

thethanimal's picture

After I posted above I went back and read your review. It sounds like your view of the end is the musical equivalent to the endings of No Country for Old Men and The Road. Perhaps Gubaidulina and McCarthy are kindred spirits, but in any case I think there is some reconciliation in C.S. Lewis’s supposition that at the end of life we’ll look back and realize that we were living our way into Heaven or Hell the entire time. Such is the Christian hope: I will still carry my fire though all about me be tempest tossed. The light at the end can be both glory for me and a dawning hope for those left to continue their journeys.