Bach; Gubaidulina Violin Concertos

Brooding, turbulence and visions of hell and heaven in Gubaidulina’s concerto

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Bach; Gubaidulina Violin Concertos

  • Concerto for Violin and Strings, (Allegro moderato)
  • Concerto for Violin and Strings, Andante
  • Concerto for Violin and Strings, Allegro assai
  • Concerto for Violin and Strings, Allegro
  • Concerto for Violin and Strings, Adagio
  • Concerto for Violin and Strings, Allegro assai
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, 'In Tempus Praesens'

Anne-Sophie Mutter has lost no time in recording the violin concerto written for her by Sofia Gubaidulina in 2006-07. In a single movement running for about 32 minutes, it shows the composer’s concern to make a direct and immediate impact, avoiding complicated materials but using very expansive forms. It’s possible to sense the kind of allusions to Mahlerian archetypes that are no less prominent in Shostakovich or Schnittke. Yet Gubaidulina has her own very personal musical identity, and the concerto’s strategies for playing off heights against depths, lament against affirmation, are very powerfully realised. The risks of rambling, improvisatory musing are triumphantly avoided, and the work’s final stages appear to bring starkly opposed images of extinction and rebirth into a strongly ambivalent conclusion that both affirms and questions resolution.

This darkly inviting music is splendidly performed. You’d expect the Mutter/Gergiev combination to be combustible, and there is certainly no reticence or half-measures in the way the music’s expressive core, its play with visions of hell and heaven, is exposed. Gestures towards traditional consonant harmony stand out strangely, and dancelike patterns are clearly not going to survive for very long in a context where brooding and turbulence are the principal qualities. The resplendent recording celebrates the score’s rich colouring while never allowing the solo line, played with all this performer’s natural theatricality and poise, to lose its prominence. Maybe, at one particularly stark climax, the hammered rhythmic repetitions in the orchestra seem over-emphatic. But urgency rather than reticence drives Gubaidulina’s thought, and this performance never lets you forget it.

It would have been good to hear these performers in Gubaidulina’s other major work for violin and orchestra, Offertorium. Instead, the pair of Bach concertos speak of a distant musical world in which stability and spontaneity achieved an extraordinary conjunction. The performances are neat, tidy, dispatched with elegance and vigour. Yet they reinforce the gulf that musically separates then from now, and all-Gubaidulina discs are not as common as they should be.

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