Gubaidulina Offertorium; Hommage

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Gubaidulina Offertorium; Hommage

  • Offertorium
  • Hommage à T. S. Eliot

The name of Sofia Gubaidulina has been heard more and more often in the West in the last few years, often enough bracketed with those of her close contemporaries Alfred Schittke and Edison Denisov. That she may be the most individual of the three and the most compellingly gifted is at least strongly suggested by this impressive coupling. To say that her Offertorium is a brilliantly clever game in which the Thema Regium from Bach's Musical Offering is first dematerialized (by removing its outermost notes two by two until only the central E remains) and then remade (by the reverse process, this time so that the theme emerges backwards) would be much less than half the truth. The apparent musical 'programme' of the work (from Bach back to Bach by way of quasi-serial procedures) is also an understatement, I believe, both of its objectives and its achievement. The 'reconstructed' theme is in fact as remote from Bach (and from serialism) as one could imagine; a very long, gravely sonorous and memorably beautiful melody, of clearly religious chant-like cast. Gubaidulina has offered no verbai programme for the Offertorium, so far as I know, but she has said in an interview (in The Musical Times: March 1988) that the Russian Orthodox overtones of that theme are due not to quotation or stylization but because ''at that moment my meaning approaches most closely to that of church music''. Can we, perhaps, read her further statement that ''the whole score is built on the idea of conversion'' in this light, and interpret even its title as having a double meaning?
I do not mean that we should see the work as a piece of crypto-religious samizdat; its subtitle is Violin Concerto, after all, and it is a vividly resourceful one, as full of virtuoso flourishes and almost gipsy violinistics as it is of precisely imagined and alluring orchestral sonorities. But just as its title alludes both to the Bachian model and to the Mass, so 'conversion' seems to refer both to a translation of Bach (and Webern, in whose manner the 'Royal Theme' is first stated) into Russian idiom, and to some spiritual process for which that transformation could be a metaphor. I may be wide of the mark, but some such reading seems implied by the expressive intensity of the music. The structure, after fewer hearings than the work deserves, seems diffuse at one or two points, the violinistic gestures too incessant, but of Gubaidulina's striking personal vision and urgent eloquence there can be no doubt.
Both are still more marked, and religious preoccupations more overt, in the more recent Hommage a T. S. Eliot, a work of formidable power and gripping vehemence. Only three of its seven movements actually use Eliot's words (from the Four Quartets, sung in English) but the whole work is concentrated upon his dark meditations on sin and redemption. Light and darkness, ''the fire and the rose'', are the central images of the texts Gubaidulina has chosen, and her musical imagery, her use of instruments even, match those images with precise poetic insight. Here there is no hint of diffuseness, the sense of imaginative and emotional unity is very strong, and the line of the piece is unbroken. Both performances are extremely fine, Kremer's virtuosity in the Offertorium matched by orchestral playing of great brilliance, and the performers of the Hommage project it with passionate urgency; the recordings are very fine indeed. To find a composer in whom simplicity and complexity are not opposites but part of a spectrum, both servants of a disciplined but impassioned expressiveness, is a welcome experience, and a richly rewarding one.'

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