Glorious Percussion, In Tempus Praesens - Gubaidulina: Concertos
Sofia Gubaidulina, the 80-year old Russian/Tatar composer, is one of the most respected of living composers. She has composed in a variety of genres, but her concertos have gained a wide following and for good reason. As witnessed by the concertos on this CD, they are indeed remarkable and glorious works. In tempus praesens is her second violin concerto. The first such concerto, Offertorium, was written more than twenty-five years before this one. Both have received multiple performances and are considered two of the finest in recent times. Gubaidulina composed In tempus praesens for Anne-Sophie Mutter, who recorded it with the London Symphony and Valery Gergiev for Deutsche Grammophon. The concerto receives its second recording here.
Gubaidulina’s Russian Orthodox faith is never very far away in her compositions and they have religious significance. In the case of this violin concerto the title refers to the present time. More important, the work embodies the divine wisdom personified in the orthodox religion by the saint Sophia. Since Gubaidulina’s Christian name is Sophia and she composed the concerto for and dedicated it to Anne-Sophie Mutter, the figure of Sophia has a special significance in the work not only in her divine wisdom, but also in the very creative power of God. This is reflected throughout the work in the contrast between the dark as demonstrated by the use of the low brass and strings and the light by the violin solos. The concerto is in a single, long movement that is sub-divided into five parts. It is a shame that neither Mutter’s première recording nor this new one has more than a single track. It would have made it much easier to assimilate the work had there been separate tracks for the individual sections. As it is, though, the concerto grips the listener from the beginning and does not let go until it reaches ever upward in a spectacular climax by the whole orchestra like a burst of light, only to have the low brass (trombones and tubas) growl at the very bottom of the orchestra. The solo violin, however, gets the final say and ends the work on a high, sustained note. In tempus praesens is one of those works that exhilarate the listener so that you want to immediately go back and hear it all over again. There is a DVD out titled “Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto” with Gubaidulina and Mutter on this very composition. I haven’t seen it, but it has received critical acclaim. One would imagine, then, that Anne-Sophie Mutter “owns” the work, but here is a challenger in Vadim Gluzman who has his own equally valid interpretation. He is superbly accompanied by Jonathan Nott and the Lucerne Symphony and the recorded sound is indeed stunning. One associates Nott more with Schubert or Mahler, but it should be remembered that he did yeoman service to the large orchestral works of Ligeti in the Volume II of Warner’s Ligeti Project. To briefly sum up my impression of the main difference between these two recordings, Mutter’s is the more extrovert and Gluzman’s the more inward. Certainly, Mutter with her larger-than-life tone grabs the listener from the beginning and Gergiev’s orchestra also makes more of an impact for most of the concerto. Part of this is due to the recordings, where the DG seems to be somewhat more closely recorded; that is not to say the BIS is by any means distant. The balance on the BIS seems about perfect and there are places where the subtlety pays off. For example, in the last five or so minutes of the piece, there are tremendous percussion effects by cymbals, gongs, and bells. With their more distant placement down in the depths of the Lucerne orchestra, they create an especially eerie effect that is somehow more felt than heard. It plays right into Gubaidulina’s symbolism of dark vs. light. Gergiev here is more obvious, but nonetheless magnificent as well. The very ending of the concerto is telling. Gergiev builds the orchestral crescendo so that the light is almost blinding, but the following low brass and strings do not make the same impact as they do with Nott. Nott’s light may not be as blinding, but the low brass really growl and create a very unsettling experience before the violinist completes the work on the high, sustained note. Again that note is more intense with Mutter, but Gluzman with his purer tone is also convincing as he is throughout the concerto. I frankly would not want to be without either of these different interpretations of what is perhaps the greatest violin concerto this century has produced so far.
With that said, the primary interest of this CD must be the world première recording of Gubaidulina’s Glorious Percussion. I am familiar with a number of percussion concertos, including James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel, Toru Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call Time, and Joseph Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto. While all three of these possess their considerable merits, they did not prepare me for this extraordinary new work in the genre. As with the violin concerto, this percussion concerto requires a very large orchestra. In addition to the five percussion soloists placed at the front of the orchestra there is the usual contingent at the back; and the brass also plays a major role with the addition of four Wagner tubas interchanging with horns, two bass tubas, bass and tenor trombones, etc. Incidentally, Gubaidulina also employed Wagner tubas in the violin concerto. The work is thus distinguished by the percussion soloists who have seven sections in the work where they improvise in contrast to the more static nature of the rest of the orchestra. Again it’s unfortunate that the concerto receives a single track on the disc where it would have made a lot of sense to divide it into these sections. Glorious Percussion begins with the lower brass and percussion playing a chordal theme that lumbers like some behemoth in the depths of the orchestra. This theme recurs in key places in the work and at the end of it with the cymbals and tam-tam as they resonate, having the final say. Contrasting with the rather static nature of the orchestral part, the solo percussionists have a heyday with a huge variety of instruments, including all kinds and sizes of gongs, marimbas and xylophones, bells, woodblocks and rattles, four bass drums, and a whole variety of Asian folk instruments with such strange names as cabaza and darabuca. At one point in the piece the soloists go wild with their mallets on the marimbas and xylophones and later they do the same with the bass drums, creating quite a racket. While one can get a good appreciation of the concerto simply from listening to the fabulous performance on this recording, I think the visual element is of almost equal importance. Fortunately, you can “attend” a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel and the Glorious Percussion soloists by visiting the Philharmonic’s website. There is a free preview of the concert - also including a blistering account of Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony - that will entice you to buy a ticket to the concert well worth the modest cost. Dudamel premiered the concerto with the Gothenburg Symphony in 2008 and this concert took place not long after that première. The percussion ensemble contributes a theatrical element — almost balletic at times — that adds a whole other dimension to the work. It really must be seen to be fully appreciated! The concerto in fact was co-commissioned by Anders Loguin, whose ensemble took their name from Gubaidulina’s composition, and four orchestras including the Lucerne Symphony. “Glorious” of the title of the work has its spiritual connotation as one would expect from any piece by Gubaidulina, and the concerto does connect with heaven and earth. If Mahler claimed to possess the whole world in his symphonies, Gubaidulina would seem to occupy the universe in this concerto. There is an interesting interview with her on the Berlin Philharmonic website accompanying the concert, where she talks about the concerto and her fascination with the different tones of the percussion and the whole complex of pulsating sounds in nature they depict. The interview is free of charge.
Except for the lack of multiple tracks and notes on the two works that could be more detailed, BIS has come up with a real winner here. It will likely rank high on my list of best recordings of 2012.
-- Leslie Wright, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: BIS-CD-1752
Composer: Sofia Gubaidulina
Conductor: Jonathan Nott
Orchestra/Ensemble: Glorious Percussion, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Anders Haag, Anders Loguin, Eirik Raude, Mika Takehara, Robyn Schulkowsky, Vadim Gluzman