SOFIA GUBAIDULINA: “Repentance” = Repentance; Serenade for solo guitar; Piano Sonata; Sotto voce – various performers/soloists – BIS

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA: “Repentance” = Repentance; Serenade for solo guitar; Piano Sonata; Sotto voce – various performers/soloists – BIS 2056 multichannel SACD, 70:07 [Distr. by Naxos] (8/12/14) ***1/2:

Sofia Gubaidulina has been a prominent name in the Russian contemporary scene for quite some time. Her music is typically complex, dark in mood and – more often than not – written on a fairly large scale. However, chamber music does occupy a fairly large spot in her repertoire with more than eighty works of that type to her credit.

This collection opens with Gubaidulina’s Repentance from 2008 and is a reworking of an earlier work, taking its title from a translation of the original work’s Italian title, Ravvedimento. This dark, introspective and “moody” work uses a number of extended techniques within an ensemble consisting of cello, three guitars and double bass. This was my favorite work here and it is somewhat amazing to hear the rather ghostly timbres that Gubaidulina gets from this combination.

The Serenade for solo guitar dates from 1960 and was written on commission from a Moscow publishing house for inclusion in a collection of guitar compositions. Supposedly, the composer was asked to write something not overtly difficult and more a piece that could be played for pleasure. At under three minutes long and being rather relaxed and simple-sounding compared to the other works present it seems like this succeeds in very interesting ways.

The Piano Sonata is also a fairly “old” work in Gubaidulina’s output, stemming from 1965. The work uses elements of jazz as well as twelve-tone row construction. At one point it was the composer’s creative use of these fairly old techniques that gave her prominence in the Russian avant-garde. I really don’t care for this piece too much but is certainly an interesting benchmark in the composer’s output.

Another highlight of this collection for me is the world premiere recording of Sotto voce for viola, doublebass and two guitars. This is similar to Repentance in its unusual ensemble and the dark, spectral effects she is able to elicit. Gubaidulina has commented on the instrumentation as follows: “It fascinated me on account of its dark color and its potential for contrast between a muted, almost whispered sotto voce sound and that particular sort of expressivity that low-pitched instruments possess”. There really is something beautiful and, yet, creepy about the sound of this work that I admired.

There is no doubt that the music of Sofia Gubaidulina is a tough listen. It requires patience and an open mind. I do think that these works are well worth exploring and all performers, apparently all from Munich, are highly skilled. I am not sure that this is an ideal first exposure to Gubaidulina’s music. I suggest maybe her Offertorium for violin and orchestra.

—Daniel Coombs

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