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The Passion According to Sofia

In 1989 a group of Soviet composers brought their music to Boston, most of it for its first American hearings. There were some familiar names among the group; music by Schnittke, Shchedrin and Kancheli had already leaked out of the Soviet Union in those early days of glasnost. One name, however, was completely unknown. A Soviet information agency had set up a listening room where critics could sample discs and tapes, and the music that proved the most astounding was by Sofia Gubaidulina: a huge violin concerto called Offertorium that was built around a gloss on J.S. Bach‘s A Musical Offering, and a weird virtuoso romp for nothing but solo bassoon and an orchestra of low strings. Gubaidulina was at the conference: a small, dour figure in her late 50s, presiding over further revelations of her strange, distinctive musical outlooks in which such diverse elements as folk songs from her Tatar ancestry, Schoenbergian atonality and American jazz and pop clashed delightfully. Discovering her and her music was, for many of us in Boston that week, the most memorable event.

Now Gubaidulina is better known, and recent photographs suggest that she has learned to smile. The Kronos plays and records her music. The Offertorium is on the Philharmonic schedule for late February, with concertmaster Martin Chalifour as soloist. Some of her best discs, including two versions of the Bassoon Concerto, have already come and gone, but just this month there are three new recordings of major works, sharing in common a kind of dark, elegiac ecstasy and the power to raise goose bumps.

One is the product of the unique commissioning program wherein the Stuttgart-based International Bach Academy elicited four full-evening settings, from four composers of diverse backgrounds, of the Passion narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as a celebration of last year’s Bach anniversary. All were recorded at their Stuttgart premieres, and I‘ve already written about Wolfgang Rihm’s Luke and Osvaldo Golijov‘s Mark -- both, like the Gubaidulina Johannes-Passion, on Germany’s Hanssler-Classic label and, I‘m sorry to say, easier to find via Internet mail order than at your neighborhood record store (Tan Dun’s Matthew is due out on Sony, whenever). However you may bemoan the fate of contemporary serious music, this celebration of the continuity of the spirit of Bach, as evidenced in these commissions dreamed up by the Bach-Akademie‘s Helmuth Rilling, constitutes a repertory of reassurance.

Like Golijov’s Latino-Hebraic Mark, Gubaidulina‘s John draws from her own mingled ethnicities -- Tatar, Russian Orthodox, Jewish. Her text is the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in John‘s Gospel -- tragic and mystical, as we know from Bach’s setting of the same words. Into this, however, she has also spliced John‘s words from Revelation, the close-to-pagan evocation of the Day of Judgment. Her music swings back and forth from these extremes. The solo basso and the low voices from the chorus evoke the sounds we know as Russian liturgical -- from Rachmaninoff’s Vesper Service and the old Don Cossack Choir records; then there are huge drums, brass and bells to inundate the senses with fear and exultation. The 91 minutes of music holds you tight: the splendor of the halo, the agony of the nails. Valery Gergiev conducts forces from St. Petersburg, and a basso named Genady Bezzubenkov will sing holes into your skull.

On EMI Classics there is Gubaidulina‘s 1997Canticle of the Sun, music inspired by two levels of ecstasy: the visionary poetry of St. Francis of Assisi and the soaring trajectory of Mstislav Rostropovich’s cello. The two ecstasies mingle; a small chorus (Terry Edwards‘ London Voices) hints at some of the saintly words, but it is Rostropovich who completes their thoughts, with a small ensemble of percussion and celesta. After the dark of the Johannes-Passion, the pure bright light of this marvelous work might even blind you. Light and shadow also jostle each other in the companion work, the 1994 Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion. Here a string orchestra, led by Rostropovich, is divided into two parts tuned a quarter-tone apart; the solo flutist -- the remarkable Emmanuel Pahud -- uses two instruments to accord with both groups. Elegant, featherweight glissandos seem to swaddle the music in shimmering gift-wrapping.

Gubaidulina’s Two Paths: Music for Two Solo Violas and Symphony Orchestra dates from 1999, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and released in a recent 10-disc set of archive recordings under the about-to-retire Kurt Masur. Wonderful, lush music this, cannily devised as a set of variations in which the solo violas (first-desk players Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young) follow intersecting paths -- one up, one down, more of the light-vs.-shadow motivation that often guides the composer‘s pen. Ten discs of Masur, including several more new works (Henze, Kancheli, Tan) plus the Bach and Beethoven that you surely have in less noncommittal performances, may be a stretch, but I do find myself returning to this one 25-minute work of Gubaidulina, for its greatness of spirit and the eloquence of its language.

Ever since I sold my 78s and left home unencumbered, one of the albums that I’ve most often longed to hear again has been RCA-Victor M-193, Smetana‘s The Bartered Bride, complete on 15 shellacs, in a performance -- by the Prague National Opera under Ottakar Ostrcil -- that seemed at the time as pure an essence of romantic comedy as ever was. Now, I report with practically gurgling joy, it still does. Naxos, that most unpredictable of all labels, has reissued that performance on two little silvery discs that weigh about 1200 of the pristine weight, in a remastering by restorer Ward Marston, priced at far fewer 2001 dollars ($12) than the original sold for in 1933 dollars ($22.50).

After its unthrilling start as a purveyor of standard repertory in performances of dubious provenance, Naxos has now moved into territory abandoned by the majors, as preserver of the industry’s legendary past: not only complete operas but also forgotten unforgettable soloists. Marston and his crew create minor miracles in rescuing ancient sounds in their original -- not beefed-up -- resonance. And when Emil Pollert, the marriage broker in this newold, glorious, best-of-all Bartered Brides, sings out his “A chalupu a chalupu,” I laugh myself silly once again, and the years fall away.


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