CLASSICAL MUSIC: Sofia Gubaidulina; QEH, London

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The Independent Culture
The Tartar-born composer Sofia Gubaidulina is in Britain to celebrate her 65th birthday. Celebrate? From the concert given in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Saturday by the London Sinfonietta and Voices under Markus Stenz, "celebrate" could hardly be a more inappropriate word. For of the works programmed it would be hard to find music more emotionally lacerating. (How illuminating to contrast the mainly happy-go-lucky nature of American contemporary music recently heard in the American Independents Festival with this music from the other, former, "superpower".) As Gubaidulina tellingly pointed out in her pre-concert talk: "People who create must have spiritual feeling, because without it art ceases to have any meaning, becoming entertainment, so does not produce important changes in people." Well, this modest audience seemed changed and transfixed as her music, dark and anguished, burrowed its way into our collective soul.

Meditation on the Bach Chorale "Before They Throne I come, O Lord", written in 1993 and receiving its London premiere, is a paraphrase on Bach's very last composition. Gubaidulina's interest in Bach arises not merely in his position as the great contrapuntist but as Gerald McBurney points out in his fascinating programme essay, it is with Bach, "the mystic, the master of the arcane, the symbolical and proportional... the master, in fact, of those qualities, which she is overwhelmingly concerned in her own music". Gubaidulina, who suggests that "contemplation" is a better translation of her title than "meditation", has deconstructed Bach's work, answering Bach's intricate number of relationships with her own thoroughly personal approach. Scored for amplified harpsichord and five strings, the intrumental colours strongly recall works by her contemporaries Arvo Part, Giya Kancheli and Alfred Schnittke.

Allthough Haydn provided the initial stimulus in his Seven Last Words, it was to Schutz that Gubaidulina turned when writing her own setting of The Seven Last Words. Hers, written in 1982, was first published under the neutral (and safer) title of Partita, since the religious significance of the Seven Words was deemed "inappropriate". Seven Words is a chamber concerto for cello, bayan (free-bass accordion) and strings, in seven movements played without break. The work is steeped in musical symbolism: the cello not only signifies the soul of Christ but as each string is "crossed" a crucifixion is suffered to the point where after "I thirst" the bow transcends the bridge to play "on the other side". The bayan representing the body of Christ initially works with the cello as a concertino. Gubaidulina introduces almost human qualities to the sounds of the bayan - horrifying inhalations and screams as the crucifixion is carried out. The extraordinary soloists were Karine Georgian (cello) and James Crabb (bayan).

The final work for chamber choir and ensemble, Now Always Snow (1993) brought no light relief. It's a setting in five movements of poems by Gennadi Aigi, where soul, snow, God and light equal unity. With the singers spatially separated around the hall, the audience was bathed in layers of speaking voices, singing voices and finally bowed flexitones. In all, masterly.

Annette Morreau