The Canticle of the Sun (1997). Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello & percussion; Simon Carrington, Neil Percy, Dave Jackson and Jeremy Cornes, percussion; John Alley, celeste/London Voices, Ryusuke Numajiri, cond. Emmanuel Pahud, flutes; London Symphony Orch/Mstislav Rostropovich, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57153 (F) (DDD) TT: 75:41
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Now in her 71st year, Sofia Gubaidulina is the late-blooming daughter of a Muslim Tatar father and a slavic mother of mixed Russian and Polish descent, although she studied with Vissarion Shebalin (1902-63), a pupil of Myaskovsky, at the Moscow Conservatory starting in 1954. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union she earned her living as a composer of film music -- always a more respectable occupation in the USSR (likewise England and France) than in Hollywood. Gerard McBurney’s annotation informs us that she moved to Germany in the early 1990s as her star ascended, and today lives outside Hamburg, where more commissions arrive than she has time to complete.
These two works are my first experience of her music, and while others have preferred the 30' Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion, written in 1994, I’ve come to prefer the 1997 Canticle of the Sun, composed for the 70th birthday of Rostropovich, who recorded it two years later in London with a pair more of percussionists (Slava himself doubles on cello and batterie), celesta, and London Voices, all conducted by Ryusake Numajiri. It is a 40’ setting in four episodes of excerpts from St. Francis of Assisi’s text: “Glorification of the Creator and His creations, Sun and Moon”; “Glorification of...the Maker of Air, Water, Fire and Earth”; “Glorification of Life,” and “Glorification of Death.” The original texts and an English translation are included.
Subtleties of pitch and rhythm are Gubaildulina’s principal tools in a basically diatonic-dissonant context, with the cellist serving as Celebrant, sort-of (in the sense that Bernstein used a male singer in his Kennedy Center Mass), embroidering, underlining, intensifying, even seeming to dance -- all in Slava’s outsize style. Without meaning disrespect, I would like to hear Starker or Truls Mørk play it (but please, not Yo-Ya Ma unless someone has sedated him beforehand; he’s become the Sino-American exponent of Slava’s exaggerated stage antics, which were coached in the early ‘60s by that incorrigible showman, Gregor Piatigorsky, after seeing Rostropovich’s stiff, sober platform manner when he first debuted stateside). The disc gives 11 cues during the course of Canticle, and virtually all retain their power to persuade as well as surprise after several hearings.
Not so the 1944 flute music, despite Emmanuel Pahud’s superb playing (James Galway not only has a successor, he has been bettered). Pahud is assisted by four more flutists playing piccolo, bass, alto and gold instruments, plus four percussion players, and the London Symphony strings, half of which tune a quarter-tone lower than the half, representing “light and shadow” (is anyone else reminded of Ives’ “echoes” in his Third Symphony of 1904, “The Camp Meeting”?). Gubaidulina uses microtones with an uncanny ear for nuance, but I was already antsy after 12 minutes of the piece, with another 20 yet to come. I’ve listened three times, so far, but thematic material isn’t sufficiently distinctive or varied to make me want to hear it further - although my appetite is whetted for other works by her. She may be, say I from the end of a high limb, the most interesting distaff composer since Ruth Crawford (Seeger).
EMI recorded The Canticle in storied Studio No. 1 at Abbey Road, London, and the Music for Flute, et aia. in Watford Colosseum a year later. Stephen Johns produced both with two different but equally proficient engineers, and the sound throughout is enthralling!
R.D. (Dec. 2001)